Name: Matt Thompson
Position: Starting Pitcher
DOB: February 10, 1990
Acquired: 2008 Amateur Draft, 4th round
At the time Matt Thompson entered professional baseball as the Rangers' fourth-round pick in the 2008 draft, he already possessed an upper-80s, low-90s fastball and a mature curveball.
And he quickly showed exactly how important command within the strike zone is––even at the rookie level.
Despite his advanced stuff, Thompson was rocked in his pro debut, surrendering 23 runs on 25 hits in just 8.1 innings.
In the two years since that disastrous '08 stint with the rookie-level Surprise Rangers, Thompson has made steady progress.
He attended Fall Instructional League after that debut season and began working on a changeup. Though he didn't feature a third pitch in high school, Thompson showed an immediate feel for the offering.
Working with a three-pitch repertoire for the first time, the right-hander progressed to short-season Spokane in the summer of '09. He posted a 4.38 ERA over 72 innings, walking just 10 and striking out 53. While the control was excellent, his command within the strike zone remained a work in progress, as opponents hit him at a .310 clip.
Last season, the Metroplex native had up-and-down results at Single-A Hickory, showing flashes of dominance at times and getting hit hard at others. Overall, he finished with a 4.66 ERA in 129.1 innings. The hurler continued to pound the strike zone (4% walk rate) and began missing bats with greater frequency (22.5% strikeout). But still, the opposition batted .310 against him.
Thompson is a decent athlete with a good feel for pitching and clean mechanics. Because of that, he should ultimately be able to command his fastball within the strike zone.
According to pitching coach Brad Holman, the 21-year-old has made progress in terms of repeating his delivery with consistency, which will improve his location with time.
"The objective is that––when they learn their deliveries––they can self-coach," Holman said. "And with Matt Thompson, that has been his biggest thing this year. When he gets into a funk, he doesn't just try things. He has got specific information that he can go to. Like Neil (Ramirez), he understands the delivery, how it works, and why it has to work that way."
Thompson's command has improved a bit, and there is certainly plenty more progress to be made. But once he begins to locate within the zone, his advanced three-pitch mix should allow him to jump through the system.
Cole: How long have you been out here in Arizona so far?
Thompson: I got out here one week early. I like to come out a week early just to get used to things––get used to the air and everything. I always want to get a few bullpens in and just get ready for the start.
Cole: Now that you guys have officially been in camp for a couple days, what have you been doing out here so far?
Thompson: Just a lot of getting used to things. We've had a lot of new guys come in. We're doing stations, throwing bullpens, and everything. We've got tracking tomorrow followed by live BP and then we've got games after that. So we're pretty much hitting the ground running.
Cole: After taking a step forward last season, how much are you looking forward to this year?
Thompson: Oh, I'm looking forward to it a lot. I'm excited. I learned a lot of stuff last year. I had some successes and had some failures. I want to take the success and put it in the back pocket. And I want to learn from the failures and get ready to go this year.
Cole: What were your overall thoughts on the 2010 season?
Thompson: The first half, I felt good. I was able to make adjustments and all my pitches were working. After the All-Star break, I really kind of hit a wall both mentally and physically. The only thing I can do this year is just learn from it and adapt and make changes on the fly.
Cole: What have you done over the offseason to ensure that you don't hit that wall again?
Thompson: Physically, I came in more in-shape. I'm a lot lighter than I was last year. That should help me through the day-to-day grind. Mentally, I'm just learning things and studying things that I came upon last year and didn't know how to treat or fix. I think I know how to fix those this year.
Cole: Which aspects of your game did you feel developed the most with Hickory last season?
Thompson: Brad Holman, the pitching coach, was great. He knows his stuff and he relates to us well. Really it was just sequences––learning what to throw, when to throw it, why to throw it. It was that sort of stuff.
Cole: Obviously you have pretty good velocity and a reliable curveball. How did you feel your changeup came along in 2010?
Thompson: Good. So far this spring––I've had about four or five ‘pens––and I've felt good about it so far. We'll see if that can continue.
Cole: Last year in spring training, you told me about some of the stuff you were doing to get a little more movement on your fastball. Can you kind of rehash what you were doing and are you still doing it?
Thompson: I'm actually learning a cutter and a two-seam fastball. The cutter is really new––I learned it in late-December. I've been working with it ever since. It has decent movement. I'm still learning to command it. But hopefully after practicing with it a couple more months, it should be there.
Cole: Have you ever worked with a two-seam fastball in the past?
Thompson: I've had one. I really haven't thrown it or implemented it. Hopefully this year I can learn to throw it and command it.
Cole: Are the cutter and two-seam fastball things that you want to use in games this year? Or are they things you're working on to keep in the back pocket for later on?
Thompson: Absolutely. If I can get them, I can throw them, and I'm pleased with them, I'd love to be able to throw it in good situations. Instead of having a flat fastball, I want to have some movement and some life to it. Hopefully it will get me out of some jams.
Cole: As you throw the bullpens, you're clearly working on the cutter and two-seamer. But what else are you focusing on thus far?
Thompson: Just being able to command the ball and throw all pitches for strikes lower in the zone or where I want them. So far, so good. I'm getting all the rust off and I'm ready to go for games.
Cole: With all the young pitchers that Brad Holman works with at the lower levels, he seems to have a big focus on smoothing out mechanics to get the most out of a pitcher's arm. Has he done any work like that with you?
Thompson: We worked a lot last year on eliminating the rotational aspect of my delivery––on keeping me closed and eliminating rotation. I feel like we worked a lot last year. I feel like I know where I should be this year. I can throw a bullpen on my own and kind of check myself––get my own checkpoints. This year, I'm going to try and work away from that and get past that. I want to move on to some other things––mental things, more than just delivery.
Cole: Your brother is a senior in high school and also a pitching prospect. Last year, I noticed you were teaching your delivery to him out in Hickory.
Thompson: Yeah, he's a big one. He's 6-foot-7. If he can master that delivery––get the rotation out and come over the top––he could have some really good downward angle, which is good.
Cole: When you do get the rotation out of the delivery, how does that help you on the mound? What does it do for you?
Thompson: I feel like I'm in a better place than I was last year with it. It just creates more downward angle for the hitter to hit. It eliminates sideways misses, so if you're going to miss with a ball, it's going to be high or low. That's where you want it to be. I'm going to keep working on it this year and just see if I can get better at it.
Cole: Holman will be moving up a level this year, to Myrtle Beach. If you do go there, how much are you looking forward to continue working with a coach that you seem to have a good rapport with?
Thompson: There's obviously a comfort factor there. Me and him get along great. There is still a lot left that I want to pick his brain about. I'm trying to do it here in spring training, but I'd love to get another chance at working with him at a full-season club.
Repertoire: Fastball, Curveball, Changeup.
Fastball: Thompson pounds the strike zone with a fastball that currently sits at 88-92 mph and reaches 93 on occasion. As the righty finishes maturation, he should sit more in the 90-93 range. He throws the four-seam fastball on a downward plane, and the pitch has some natural weight/sink when thrown low in the zone. However, his fastball straightens out when left up, and he must tighten his command within the strike zone. A good athlete with repeatable mechanics, Thompson is a strike-throwing machine that projects for solid-average to plus fastball command––but he isn't there quite yet.
Other Pitches: Showing tight rotation and late break with plenty of depth, Thompson's mature 75-78 mph curveball already borders on plus. He does an excellent job of commanding the pitch, and it should be a legitimate swing-and-miss offering at the upper levels. The curve was a key factor in his 130 strikeouts over 129.1 innings last season.
Thompson also shows a good feel for his low-80s changeup, which projects as at least a solid-average offering. The pitch has deception, tumble, and good sink. The change's sinking action helped him record over two groundouts per flyout against southpaws in 2010. He throws plenty of strikes with both secondary pitches, but much like with his fastball, he'll need to refine his within-the-zone command of the changeup.
Projection: A favorite of scouts when discussing under-the-radar arms, Thompson tends to get a bit overlooked in the Rangers' stable of hard-throwing prospects. But few pitchers in the system can boast his solid across-the-board package of stuff, control, mechanics, and frame. With three average-or-better offerings, Thompson possesses a middle-of-the-rotation ceiling. He should have plus control and above-average command at full development. He also has a mature 6-foot-3 frame and, with his clean arm action, he should be durable down the line. While Thompson hasn't yet ‘broken out' statistically, he has gradually developed in his first two full seasons and figures to show similar progress up the ladder.
2011 Outlook: After logging 129.1 innings with Hickory last season, Thompson will progress to High-A Myrtle Beach out of camp this year. The 21-year-old's mature body and three-pitch mix should allow him to hold his own. If his fastball command takes a step forward––which is certainly possible––he could get a look at Double-A Frisco by season's end.
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