One of the things that can determine whether a young player sticks around or is merely a flash in the pan is how he handles adversity. In baseball, facing adversity is inevitable, and the only question is how long into a player’s career before he has to confront it.
Keegan Thompson has dealt with some adversity already and handled it well, moving between the bullpen and rotation in 2021, but in the month of June this season, he has been confronted with it again. A common struggle for young pitchers is that at some point, hitters are going to be able to hit their best pitches.
For Thompson, that’s his four-seam fastball. In his career, hitters are batting .236 against it, and more importantly, Thompson uses it to set up his off-speed pitches. But in his two most recent outings, on June 7 in Baltimore and on June 12 in New York, Thompson experienced some failure with his four-seam fastball. Enough to cause him to shy away from using it.
“There were a couple of fastballs that were hit in my last two outings, and I think it just took me away from it,” he said. “I was throwing more off-speed stuff and two-seams instead of four-seams.”
Thompson had given up seven runs in three innings against the Orioles and then lasted just two-thirds of an inning against the Yankees five days later.
“He ran away from the fastball a little bit,” manager David Ross said. “I’ve seen that from a couple of the young guys at times where a pitch gets hit out of the yard, gets hit really hard, and we run to our secondary stuff, which is probably usually we don’t command that pitch as well.”
Going into his Friday start against the Braves, the circumstances would have made it easy for the poor outings to start cascading for Thompson. The Braves came to Chicago with a 14-game winning streak, and the Cubs entered with a 10-game losing streak. For perspective, no team with a double-digit losing streak had beaten a team with a double-digit winning streak since the Phillies beat the Astros on September 15, 1999.
Thompson delivered the best start of his career so far, setting the tone for a 1-0 Cubs win that helped end both streaks. He struck out a career-high nine batters and generated 18 swings-and-misses, a high for both him and the Cubs this season. Thompson tossed his first career quality start, going into the seventh inning and throwing a career-high 92 pitches.
The intention was for Thompson to reestablish his four-seam fastball that he had gotten away from in his last two starts. Thompson used a heavy four-seam/cutter mix against the Braves – 51% of his pitches were four-seam and 27% were cutters.
“I saw him continue to look in and continue to shake off to heater, heater, heater,” Ross said. “Guys were late on his fastball. He was explosive today. He pitched with some meaning today. ‘This is what I’m going to do, I’m going to come right after these guys.’”
Thompson went through the Braves lineup three times Friday. The third time through any lineup is usually the biggest challenge for a starter; by then, the opposing hitters have seen his stuff and begun working on adjusting to it. What can sometimes cause a starter to struggle, Ross said, is to give into the temptation to start working in more off-speed and breaking pitches the third time through, rather than continuing to rely on the pitch that has been working.
“Everything works off of my fastball,” Thompson said. “I was trying to use my fastball off my offspeed stuff the last couple outings, and I kind of shied away from it.”
A part of what helped Thompson deliver his longest outing was him sticking with his four-seamer, even during the third time through the Braves’ order. He had given up just two hits and walked only one batter the first two times through and forced the Braves into a lot of defensive at-bats because of the way Thompson was attacking with his fastball.
“He was on a mission to when in doubt, throw his fastball. I was over there in the first inning, it was evident, ‘He’s going to throw his heater today’,” Ross said. “That’s why he had such a good, long outing.”
The Cubs win on Friday was a refreshing reprieve from the losses that have been piling up. They have put together multiple double-digit losing streaks going back to last June, and they are on pace to lose 100 games this season. As a team, they have a lot of adversity to face before they will be competitors again. Individually, Thompson demonstrated Friday that he can step up to the personal adversity he faced and help to produce a much-needed win.
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