This is the first in what promises to be a series of articles that will present a statistical oddity from the performance of a prospect in the Rangers’ system and a likely explanation. David will play the role of baffled sabermetrician and Jason Parks will play the role of sage scout. We hope you enjoy the performance.
Matt Thompson was drafted out of high school by the Rangers in the seventh round of the 2008 MLB draft. After a brief stint in the Arizona Rookie League in 2008, the right-hander spent the 2009 season pitching for Spokane in the Northwest League. Among the 32 pitchers in the short-season league who tossed at least 50 innings, Thompson ranked 22nd in strikeout rate at 6.6 K/9, 16th in ERA at 4.38, and 16th in WHIP at 1.36. Thompson did excel in two areas: He ranked first in walk rate among starting pitchers in the Northwest League at 1.2 BB/9, and he was among the league leaders with a 54 percent groundball rate. These data are consistent with a pitcher who has excellent command of relatively mediocre stuff.
The off-season was apparently a productive one for Thompson. During Spring Training 2010, Jason Parks made the following note on the Facebook page for BBTiA:
“RHP Matt Thompson looked sharp during live BP. With slightly altered mechanics, Thompson's fastball had more life that allowed him to miss bats. His curveball was good when I first saw it during the 2008 Fall Instructional League and it continues to improve. The pitch that has taken the biggest step forward is his change-up, giving him the arsenal to project as a solid No. 2-3 starter.”
Thompson began his 20 year old season in 2010 and destroyed the South Atlantic League in his first ten starts (10.8 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 2.79 ERA in 48.1 innings). Kevin Goldstein took notice and passed along the following quote from a scout:
"(Thompson’s) absolutely the perfect projection pitcher. We're talking 80 delivery, 80 arm action (on the 20-80 scouting scale), and it's easy to dream on. He's 88-92 mph now with sink, an average curve, and average change, but he could really move in the future."
Using the four stats that are most commonly used to evaluate the performances of pitching prospects (age relative to league, K/9, BB/9, and GB%), Thompson compares very favorably to three SAL pitchers who are generally regarded as top 100 prospects: Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino, and Jarred Cosart. Intriguingly, the eight starting pitchers from the last five years whose age, strikeout, walk, and ground ball rates from Low A-ball most closely resemble Thompson’s is replete with top 100 prospects and major league pitchers (see table below).
Note that the pitchers in the table below were not selected based on name recognition, but were in fact the eight most statistically similar pitchers from the past five years:
And then you look at the batting line for Thompson’s opponents: .306/.333/.416. The average batting line for hitters in the South Atlantic League this season is .255/.322/.376 Despite striking out significantly less (7.7 K/9) and walking significantly more (3.0 K/9) against other pitchers in the league, SAL hitters have been far more productive against Thompson. The key difference between Thompson and the rest of the league’s pitchers is Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP). Thompson’s .388 BABIP is nearly 30 percent higher than the league average. One might brush that off as bad luck until taking note of the 24.3 percent line drive rate that Thompson has given up this year and the .301 BAA (batting average against) and .349 BABIP that he gave up in the Northwest League in 2009.
The startling dichotomy between Thompson’s peripherals and the hitting line of his opponents becomes more apparent when you compare the BAA for the pitchers who were discussed in the table above:
M. Thompson -- .306 BAA
J. Cosart -- .224 BAA
D. Delgado -- .237 BAA
J. Cruz -- .256 BAA
J. Parker -- .251 BAA
F. Doubront -- .260 BAA
T. Herron -- .240 BAA
J. Cueto -- .191 BAA
P. Hughes -- .192 BAA
And therein lies the mystery. How can Thompson miss enough bats to strike hitters out at a 25 percent clip, have the control to walk just 4.5 percent, have the command/stuff to induce nearly two times as many ground outs as fly outs, and still allow hitters to bat .306 and slug .416 against him? To answer this great riddle and to discuss whether Thompson is likely to develop the ability to make hitters less comfortable at the plate, I present the good Professor.
Thompson is still developing as a pitcher, and sometimes the side-effects of lower-level development can scar the stat sheet. At this stage of the game, Thompson is working to refine his fastball command, and to continue the maturation of his secondary offerings. His fastball has some natural weight to it, but he has to keep it down the zone in order to be effectve. When he elevates the pitch, and offers the hitters a flat-plane view of the ball, he is susceptible to hard contact; right-handed batters have taken advantage of this so far in ’10. His average fastball velocity doesn’t afford him the luxury of getting away with many mistakes, especially when he is throwing too many bad strikes*. This is certainly reflected in the statistical record.
Another thing to remember is that when a pitcher is trying to work in a specific sequence or off of a script, the results aren’t always indicative of the developmental progress being made. If Thompson is trying to focus on his change-up against left-handed batters (for example), he might go away from his regular sequence and throw the pitch early in the count, or he might throw a first-pitch curveball to a left-handed batter with runners on base in order to refine his ability to use the pitch in any situation. There are always developmental factors at play.
You mentioned Thompson and the ability to make hitters uncomfortable; this is very important. Making hitters uneasy in the box is one of the most important aspects of pitching. The ability to offer up controlled unpredictability is what makes pitchers with good stuff great. Being able to execute a deep arsenal, that you can manipulate and command, is the key to making hitters uncomfortable.
Matt Thompson is a talented pitcher with a bright future, but he is still in the early stages of his development. I can’t say for sure that he will develop the ability to make hitters uncomfortable, especially at the higher levels, but he has a natural feel for the mound, and the intelligence to utilize his arsenal. He has a long way to go, and the stats might not always show the progress being made, but I think he has the talent to become a mid-rotation starter down-the-line.
[* Bad Strikes: Showing control by locating the pitch in the strikezone, but lacking the command to put the pitch in the desired location, away from the hitter’s wheelhouse.]