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When it comes to figuring out what the Cubs want to do with Keegan Thompson, one thing has remained constant for the second-year right-hander: he’s willing to do whatever the staff asks of him.
Go back to what Thompson said during spring training, when he still wasn’t sure whether he’d start the season as a starter or as a reliever: “Whatever I can do to help the team win, that’s all I’m trying to do.”
On May 17, after finishing the second of his two spot starts, Thompson was again asked for his thoughts on eventually joining the rotation: “I’m just going out there and doing what they’re asking me to do, whether it’s start or come out of the ‘pen.”
Fast forward to June 2, when he started his fourth game of the season and it was clear he was going to get an extended run as a starter: “It’s going to be fun, but like I’ve said before, whether it’s starting, relieving or whatever, I’m just trying to go out there and throw strikes and give the team a chance to win.”
Yes, Thompson is fine taking on any role for the pitching staff, which he has done admirably the entire season. But once the Cubs return from the All-Star break next week, there’s only one role that the team should be using Thompson in — as a full-time starting pitcher.
What say you, David Ross?
“I think there’s a lot of factors (that go) into that and big picture stuff,” the Cubs’ skipper said. “We want to keep everybody healthy, but I think Keegan has earned his right to be in the rotation.”
The first half of Thompson’s season came to an end on a sour note Thursday against the Mets, an 8-0 Cubs loss in which he was tagged for five earned runs in just 4 1/3 innings.
Thompson lacked control from the start. He was especially wild with the four-seamer, and he didn’t have much more luck commanding any of the other five pitches in his repertoire. He isn’t among the league leaders in whiff rate (he entered Thursday in the 44th percentile, per Statcast), but it still felt odd when Thompson hadn’t recorded a swing-and-miss 45 pitches into his night.
And as can be seen in the image below, he either left too many pitches over the heart of the plate that led to hard contact (average exit velocity of 95.8 mph on 19 balls in play) or he just couldn’t find the zone (only 50 strikes on 92 pitches, a career-high four walks and a hit-by-pitch).
“I was just out of whack, out of sync,” Thompson said. “Caused my arm to be late, and I would pull off or miss up and away. I was just working behind and couldn’t find the zone tonight. Just not good.”
Thursday wasn’t the first time Thompson has struggled since his move into the rotation.
He threw five innings of one-run ball in his start against the White Sox on May 28, then he improved to 6-0 on the year with a 5 1/3-inning, three-run outing on June 2 against the Cardinals. What followed were two low points on his season. On June 7, Thompson allowed a career-worst seven earned runs in Baltimore, and five days later, he recorded just two outs and gave up five runs (three earned) in New York.
But he turned a corner quickly after and rounded into shape. Over his next five starts, Thompson pitched to a 1.93 ERA with 35 strikeouts and just seven walks over 28 innings. He’d been 3-0 with a 1.38 ERA in eight relief appearances earlier in the season, and that recent stretch of starts looked a lot more like that Thompson from the beginning of the year.
“Just getting him in the rotation and finding the confidence that he could do that over a long period of time, sustain that over a long period of the game and not just in two or three-inning bursts has been really fun to watch,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said pregame Thursday. “Had a little hiccup there that one week where he had kind of two rough starts, but got back to being himself. And again, he just continues to go out there and prove that, no matter what the lineup is, no matter who the hitter is, his stuff plays.”
Knowing that he’s shown he can be effective multiple times through the rotation, a third rough outing should do little to lower the Cubs’ confidence that he can stick in that spot. That’s why his coaches are all in agreement that he should remain a starter moving forward.
“Absolutely,” Hottovy said. “I mean, in my mind, there’s no question right now.”
One of the things that might’ve worked against him is the fact that Thompson’s shot came at the expense of the rotation’s health.
Through 89 games, four veterans who were expected to be members of the rotation (Kyle Hendricks, Wade Miley, Marcus Stroman and Drew Smyly) have combined to make just 40 starts. Each of them have spent time on the injured list (both Stroman and Smyly just returned from month-plus-long stints on the 15-day IL, while Hendricks and Miley are currently on the shelf with right and left shoulder strains, respectively), which has come in addition to Alec Mills pitching just seven times this year and Adbert Alzolay having been on the 60-day IL with a right shoulder strain since March 18.
As a few of those starting options near their respective returns, the idea that Thompson would go back to being a multi-inning weapon out of the bullpen could’ve been in the cards. However, the staff knows he’s got the potential to be a big part of this team’s future. The Cubs see no reason right now to move him out of his current role — and if some of those other starters get healthy in the meantime, well, that’s something they’ll just have to deal with then.
“We’re getting a good understanding of what he can do in the rotation,” Hottovy said. “We want to see if he can do that over a long period of time, and he’s starting to prove that. Yeah, in my mind, he’s here. We’re going to keep him on this path, and we’ll see what comes next. I think he’s proven that he can handle a lot of different roles in this game, but right now, having him in a starter routine, I think, is really beneficial.”
As it stands, Thompson ends the pre-All-Star-break portion of the season 7-3 with a 3.43 ERA, a 22 percent strikeout rate and an 8.5 percent walk rate. Those numbers have been buoyed by his impressive run as a reliever and that successful five-start stretch, but they’ve also been sunk by some of those tough days on the mound.
“Overall, I thought I had a good first half,” Thompson said. “Not the way I wanted to finish, obviously. Think I need to be more consistent. I either have really good outings or I have kind of really bad outings. I have to find a way to manage those bad outings and to keep those from snowballing.”
Honestly, though, those are the kind of issues you’d expect from a second-year arm who’s realistically still getting his feet wet as a big-league starter. In a season like this, where the Cubs are 21 games under .500, 15 1/2 games back in the division and 12 1/2 games out of a Wild Card spot heading into Friday, it would make sense for Thompson to get a long leash over the last 2 1/2 months of the year.
So, if the Cubs play things how they should, he’ll be referred to as “starting pitcher Keegan Thompson” every five days for the foreseeable future.
“I don’t know. Maybe,” he said, when asked if he thinks he deserves to stay in the rotation. “I’ve been kind of inconsistent in that role, but hopefully I still get the chance.”
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