Earlier this season in Stockton, the Ports had corner infielder Miles Head, who took full advantage of the California League's friendly confines by putting together a huge first half before earning a promotion to Double-A. His absence has left a gaping hole in Stockton's offense. No one has yet replaced Head's production for a Ports squad that is now stumbling down the stretch, being one of only eight full-season MiLB teams with a winning percentage below .400. Of the range of candidates to replace Head, Tony Thompson has arguably been the most consistent. Thompson's slick glove, favorable size and increasing plate appearances have paid dividends for the Reno product, who is quietly ascending the minor league depth chart for the A's and has made an impression in Stockton.
As a prep at Galena HS in Nevada, Thompson would lead his school to two consecutive league championships en route to receiving first team All-Nevada honors as a junior. The developing high schooler hit .490 with 23 homers over his career that led to a scholarship to the University of Kansas. Coupled with his dominant offensive display, Thompson also made 27 appearances on the mound for Galena, compiling a 3.41 ERA.
Although Thompson has been strictly a position player for many years, the righty has been the go-to pitcher in emergency situations for the Ports, getting through three innings without allowing a baserunner along with a strikeout this season for Stockton.
At Kansas, Thompson was exclusively used as a third baseman and he put together a historic collegiate career. He was a starter as a freshman, hitting .276 with a .325 OBP and five homers. Thompson blew those numbers away during his sophomore campaign. He began the year with a 14-game hitting streak and would finish with the first Triple Crown in Big 12 history (.389/82 RBI/21 HR). Thompson set school records in homers and total bases (186) while smacking the second-most doubles (27) and hits (96) in Jayhawk history. He would be the recipient of first-team Big 12 honors while being named as a second team all-American.
"That was pretty much one of the highlights of my life," Thompson said of his Triple Crown.
"Having done something that nobody else has, it was a great honor for me. I didn't know at the time that nobody else had done it, but when they told me I made it that much more special. It was tough to try to follow it up, but it was definitely a great personal achievement for me."
Thompson experienced a disappointment heading into his junior season, suffering a hairline fracture in his kneecap that caused him to miss the initial two months of 2010. He still managed to scrounge up a respectable campaign (.338/10 doubles/6 HR) in 40 games before the draft and Oakland took him with their sixth round selection, making Thompson the highest-drafted Kansas alumni in a decade.
"I figured because of the injury I didn't really have an idea where I'd go," Thompson said. "It was kind of nerve-racking going in and not knowing where you'll go in the draft, but I wasn't really worried about it. I just wanted a chance to play."
Thompson was an early sign and was assigned to short-season Vancouver where he accumulated more than 250 plate appearances following the draft, but only managed a 651 OPS as a Canadian. Last year, Thompson spent the year with Low-A Burlington. For the Bees, the third baseman blasted 14 HRs and 15 doubles, making him a crucial piece in their playoff run.
Thompson has always shared playing time at first and third since being drafted, but the corner infield depth chart was even more crowded at the start of the 2012 season with High-A Stockton. Besides Thompson, the Ports carried corner infielders Head, A.J. Kirby-Jones and Josh Whitaker on the roster. Whitaker was moved to the outfield, but with Head receiving the bulk of the playing time at third, Thompson began the season sharing mostly first base and DH duties with Kirby-Jones.
"Wherever I play, I play. I don't really care as long as I'm playing, I guess," Thompson said. "I've not really been too comfortable at first, but I'm getting the hang of it. I've always played third base, so it's been a little bit of an adjustment, but so far it's going ok."
Thompson's pre-All-Star Break statistics with Stockton resembled his time in Burlington, as he racked up a 730 OPS with 21 extra-base hits. His strike-out numbers increased, however, as he compiled a 16.5 K% (a 4.1% increase from 2011) during his first two months as a Port. Following the first half however, Thompson's plate discipline has steadily improved, now having walked 19 times compared to 16 strikeouts since the break. For the year, he has 34 walks in 79 games. Not always known for his ability to get on base consistently, Thompson credits his improvement in that area to a bigger focus on his approach at the plate.
"Earlier in the year I was a little too aggressive, swinging at a lot more first pitches then I am now," Thompson said.
"When I get a ball in the zone I'm still trying to hit it hard, but I've just been taking what they've given me and making sure I'm taking walks instead of swinging a pitches that are outside of the zone and putting myself in bad counts. If I can get deeper into counts and more into hitter's counts then I can do more damage.
"For the most part, this second half has been my key focus by getting good pitches to hit and trying to do too much with them because I've been getting myself out a lot like that."
That work has paid off, as Thompson is putting together his best offensive season since turning pro, with a .270/.344/.433 slash line. Since the All-Star break, Thompson's OPS with Stockton is 862. Thompson credits his coaches for the improvements he has made this season.
"I think most of [his success] is good guidance," Thompson said.
"We've got guys that are helping me with my approach at the plate and my defense as well. So I'm trying to improve all facets of my game and I'd like to focus on getting better defensively, staying consistent, and having a good approach at the plate."