It should no longer be a question. Keegan Thompson is a starter for the Chicago Cubs.
Not only that, he has cemented himself this season as one of the Cubs’ most steady and reliable rotation pieces.
Thompson has the highest number of innings pitched in the starting rotation, and with Tuesday’s start against the Pirates, he advanced past Justin Steele for the team lead in strikeouts, with 82. In a 4-2 win over Pittsburgh, Thompson struck out seven, allowed four hits, and didn’t issue a walk.
“That was as good as we’ve seen Keegan,” manager David Ross said. “He continues to build. Very consistent outing for him. No walks is impressive. Continue to pound the zone, multiple pitches.”
There is no doubt that Thompson has been steadily improving since stepping in as a starter. He moved to the rotation early in the season thanks at first to injuries on the staff, namely Marcus Stroman and Wade Miley at the time. But in the 13 starts since then, Thompson has turned himself into a fixture of the starting corps.
This is not the first time Thompson has shown what he can do as a starter, either. Late in the 2021 season he made five consecutive starts after spending the majority of the year working out of the bullpen.
“Hitting some adversity like he faced at the end of last year [and] coming out of that and doing well, that’s a positive sign,” Ross said.
In those starts last August and September, Thompson showed a few signs of what he was capable of – particularly in his showing against the Cardinals on September 26, when he struck out seven in three innings, and in his August 21 start, the first since moving out of the bullpen, when Thompson threw 73 pitches and gave up just two runs in four innings against the Royals.
Despite this success, offseason additions to the rotation pushed Thompson back to the bullpen to begin the 2022 season. He didn’t make his first start this year until May 11, so the counting stats like innings, strikeouts, and wins above replacement are all the more impressive, especially when stacked against other starters.
Since moving into the rotation in May, Thompson has been on a steady upward trajectory. And he appears to be really hitting his stride in the last five weeks or so. Since June 17, Thompson has tallied 43 strikeouts, putting him in a tie for 10th-most in the National League, and he has allowed one earned run or fewer in five of his last seven starts, good for a 2.52 ERA during that span.
The bad outings have value, too. Ross has stressed the importance of his young players getting the experience of playing and going through a full season. And that inevitably means getting through some amount of adversity. Compared to where he was as a starting pitcher a year ago, Thompson said that one of the things his experience has taught him is that he can trust in himself.
“Being able to pitch when I don’t have my best stuff,” he said. “Just having the confidence in the experience of being in situations and knowing how to get out of those tough spots.”
That feeling doesn’t come without the chance to make regular appearances in the major leagues. Thompson is not alone in that, either. Ross praised Steele’s outing in the Philadelphia series, especially the way he worked around Kyle Schwarber’s first-pitch home run and got through five innings despite not having his best stuff.
“You see those moments, and you’re like, ‘Here they come.’ There’s that with a lot of guys,” Ross said. “You also see moments when guys have a little bit of a bump in the road. Try to talk about those, and those are growth moments.”
It’s those growth moments, Ross said, that help young players move beyond simply being talented enough to get to the majors. The difference between that and sustained success is the accumulation of experience and understanding of the game.
“Your experiences carry you so much farther and be able to make so many more better decisions with probably less ability as you’re able to sustain yourself as a major leaguer,” Ross said. “But it’s a real kind of fine line of that mix of the young talent and the experience. And when you get those two combining, there’s a lot of really great things in there.”
It is still very early in Thompson’s career, but he is getting the kind of experience now that will serve him – and the Cubs – well as he progresses. At this point, the trade deadline is a week away and the makeup of the roster will surely change significantly.
But regardless of who gets traded in the next seven days, Thompson is shaping up to be a key piece of the Cubs’ future.
“He’s established himself as a starting pitcher in the major leagues,” Ross said. “He’s done a really nice job for us. Period.”
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