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Rotation or bullpen? For Keegan Thompson, all that matters is getting outs

Ryan Herrera Avatar
June 3, 2022

Keegan Thompson has said all year that he’s not worried about his role on the team.

That goes all the way back to when he was competing for a spot in the rotation in spring training, and through the first two months of the season, nothing changed. Manager David Ross and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy felt for much of the year that his best fit was out of the bullpen, where they could deploy him for multiple innings at a time whenever the starter got in trouble and the Cubs needed someone to get them out of tough situations and eat up some innings.

Ross mentioned the term “out-getter” again before the series-opener against the Cardinals on Thursday. That’s perfectly described Thompson’s run out of the bullpen this season. In eight relief appearances, Thompson pitched to a 1.38 ERA, struck out 25 batters in 26 innings and was worth 0.6 fWAR. He still hasn’t had a relief appearance of less than 2 2/3 innings, illustrating why he’s gotten the “out-getter” reputation.

But now, the circumstances have changed. Alec Mills still hasn’t pitched for the Cubs this season and isn’t eligible to come off the 60-day injured list until Monday (though he’s still slated to pitch for Triple-A Iowa on Tuesday). Wade Miley’s left shoulder strain will keep him on the 15-day IL until at least June 10. Drew Smyly said Thursday that his right oblique strain could sideline him for about a month.

There’s a large opening in the rotation now, and it looks like the Cubs have pegged Thompson to be the one to fill it.

“It’s going to be fun,” Thompson said. “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.”

For now, he’ll be giving the Cubs a chance to win from the beginning of the game, like he did in Thursday’s 7-5 victory in which he improved to 6-0 on the year.

As dominant as Thompson has looked out of the ‘pen in 2022, his numbers have dipped a bit as a starter. Thursday’s 5 1/3-inning, three-earned-run performance brought him to 2.79 ERA in four starts this season, where he’s also allowed 19 hits and struck out 13 batters in 19 1/3 innings. But those numbers don’t scream “trouble” as much as they show how difficult it can be to move in and out of the rotation.

Thompson’s first two starts of the year came as spot starts, when the Cubs needed him to fill in to help the starters in a pinch. That’s a tough task for anyone on the pitching staff, let alone for a 27-year-old who’s realistically still finding his footing 13 months after making his big league debut. If that’s not believable, just ask the guy who’d filled that role the last few years on the North Side.

“That’s special, obviously,” said Mills, who was in Chicago checking in with the staff in between rehab outings. “He’s making it look easy, I promise you. I don’t know, maybe I made it look hard, but what he’s doing is obviously special. You guys see it every night. It’s impressive. For him to go do that and make a start and then, however many days later, go in the bullpen and close games out, he’s a weapon. I think everybody knows that.”

It hasn’t been until these last two starts (Thursday at Wrigley Field and Saturday against the White Sox on the South Side) that he’s started to get back into that starter’s rhythm he’d really only gotten to experience when he joined the rotation at the back end of 2021. Still, he said he approaches his starts the same way he approaches his relief appearances. On Thursday, he said he didn’t go out and have a prolonged pregame warmup, similar to the way he didn’t go out to warm up until about 30 minutes prior to his outing on Saturday.

On the days he knows he’s starting, he’s not switching anything up, instead going with a simple pregame routine that mirrors what he’d be doing if he was getting the call from the ‘pen in the middle of the game. As his numbers show, that system has worked out well for him, and it’s not something he’s looking to change anytime soon.

“I think that’s something that’s good for him,” Mills said. “Obviously, you’ve seen how he was in the bullpen, and if he’s just going to treat his start just like a long bullpen, it’s obviously working.”

“I think just finding that routine is part of becoming a big leaguer, of how to establish yourself and what you need to prepare yourself every single day to be successful,” Ross said. “Looks like Keegan has got a really good formula right now.”

Thompson’s outing produced both the highest number of innings and the highest number of pitches (89) that he’s thrown in his career, and he did it with the most-balanced mix of all five of his pitches in any one outing.

That’s a big part of his gameplan that’ll have to continue, because now that he’ll be facing opposing lineups more than once through the order, he’ll need to be able to give them different looks to keep them honest.

“Just mixing it in more and getting it on the report to keep guys off balance,” Thompson said of his changeup use, in particular. “Not looking for fastball/cutter away. Even on righties, just something that comes in that’s not a fastball.”

He also averaged 94 mph on his four-seamer (a slight increase from his season average), and he was still hitting that mark consistently as he got toward the end of his night. It was command issues that led to two walks in the sixth and ended in Ross taking the ball from him in favor of Michael Rucker, but the fact that he wasn’t losing steam was as positive a sign as any from his latest turn through the rotation.

“Whether that’s the fatigue of the legs when you lose command, I don’t know what it’s like to get on the backside of a start like that,” Ross said. “I kept looking at the gun, and the stuff looked sharp from the side.”

Injury issues on the team have given Thompson an opportunity for an extended-audition as a starter. Fans have certainly be clamoring for it, but the coaching staff still hasn’t walked back on the idea that being a multi-inning relief weapon could be the role in which he thrives most.

Whether he does end up moving back to the ‘pen when the other arms in the rotation return from the IL remains to be seen. For now, Thompson will get the chance to showcase how good of an “out-getter” he can be from the first pitch of the game.

“Look, I like outs. I don’t care how we get them and where they come from,” Ross said. “He’s done a good job of doing that. I love that his confidence built up in the offseason, came in and had a great spring, took over that middle-relief role and given us some length out of there. He’s having a great season so far.

“The fact of him starting and having his routine and that confidence is just that much better. I’m so happy for him, the hard work he’s put in and the continued success. I look forward to many more innings of him dominating.”

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