Thompson looking to regain control

ASHEVILLE, N.C. – Just one season after he issued only 23 walks in 129.1 innings at Single-A Hickory, Matt Thompson is having a significant bout with his control at the same level. Lone Star Dugout spoke with the right-hander about his recent issues.

The 2011 campaign hasn't been entirely pleasant for pitcher Matt Thompson. In fact, there's little doubt that it has been an all-around disappointing season––a definite setback in his developmental path.

Thompson, Lone Star Dugout's number 12 prospect in the Rangers' system last offseason, entered spring training this past March hoping to win a spot in the High-A Myrtle Beach rotation. He began the year as one of the organization's top breakout candidates, as scouts liked his frame, clean arm action and potential wipeout breaking ball, among other things.

As it turned out, the native Texan struggled with his delivery while working on a new cutter in spring training, and he ended up back at Single-A Hickory.

The initial plan certainly was for Thompson to spend a month or two with the Crawdads before moving up to the Carolina League. But that hasn't happened yet, and as Thompson states below, he believes the now-scrapped new cutter was part of the issue.

In Thompson's first three starts this season, he surrendered 13 runs while walking 10 in 12.1 innings. The control issues were foreign to the prospect, who issued just 23 free passes in 129.1 frames for Hickory in 2010.

Following the rough start out of the gates, Thompson said he had pinpointed the mechanical issues and corrected them in a between-start side session. And he was right––for a little bit. He posted the following line during a six-start stretch through most of May––34.1 ip, 29 h, 7 er (1.83 ERA), 10 bb, 41 k.

As Thompson explains in the following interview, he wasn't satisfied with his fastball velocity after making the initial adjustments and tried to make more changes. The result was an even worse bout with his own control. Between May 30 and August 3, Thompson walked 55 and uncorked 21 wild pitches in just 35.1 innings.

The Rangers moved Thompson to the bullpen in late-July in order to alleviate some pressure and give him a breather. His latest outing––on August 13 against Kannapolis––was his best yet, as he retired all six batters he faced in two perfect innings, striking out three. But the key will be building on the success and repeating it over a string of outings.

The 21-year-old's issues have only been with his fastball, and he surprisingly hasn't lost much velocity despite the struggles. Thompson says he feels like his curveball and changeup have both improved. In fact, he has been tougher to hit this season (.244 BAA) and his strikeout rate is much higher (92 K's in 84.1 innings). But the right-hander is having trouble throwing his fastball for strikes.

In his most recent outing, Thompson threw his fastball between 88-90 mph. When going well, he has featured the same 88-92 mph velocity as last season. When he has struggled, the fastball has dipped slightly, though just into the 87-89 mph range. Left-hander Michael Kirkman, who went through similar––if not worse––control troubles between the '06 and '07 seasons, saw his fastball dip into the low-to-mid 80s.

At this point, it's impossible to tell what lies in the future for the 6-foot-3, 210-pound prospect. He still shows the makings of a good fastball, a plus curveball, and a solid-average changeup. The first key will obviously be harnessing his mechanics and regaining his control.

Lone Star Dugout recently caught up with Thompson, who discussed his issues at length, including what led to the mechanical troubles, his current mindset, and how he plans to correct them.

Jason Cole: First off, tell me about your season out here. What have you come away with so far?

Matt Thompson: So far, this is really the first time I've struggled in my career. Really, I'm learning a lot about myself, a lot about my delivery, thought processes, and how to face hitters. It has been a rough one. But I know for sure that when I come out of this, I'll come out stronger and I'll learn a lot about myself in the process.

Cole: There are a couple players in the system who had the control issues and battled through them, with the most notable being Michael Kirkman. Have you talked to anyone who has gone through similar problems?

Thompson: I haven't talked to anybody directly. I've talked to Danny Clark, Scott Servais, Storm Davis, and a lot of my teammates. It's surprising––there are a lot of guys who have little things like this. Mine happens to be a bigger one. There are guys out there with bigger issues with mine. I think getting help from everybody definitely helps, and it'll help in the long run. One day I can look back at this and kind of laugh and say, ‘I'm glad I got through that.'

Cole: You had some control issues in spring training and early this regular season. Then in an interview earlier this season, you said you had corrected the issue mechanically and went on to post a string of solid starts with few walks. Now obviously the problem is back. What exactly happened?

Thompson: My ball has been cutting all year. I go through times where I can control it, and I go through times where I fight my release point. I had about six starts there in May where I just said to myself, ‘I don't care if it's cutting, I'm just going to throw it for strikes and I'm going to use it. I don't care if my velo is down or whatever––I'm just going to throw it.' And I kind of did that. After that sixth start or whatever, I tried to fix it again. Because my velo wasn't there, and I wanted a straight fastball. It has just been kind of hit and miss since then.

Cole: You were working with a true cutter in spring training. Are you still throwing that?

Thompson: No, I banged it. I think that's what my problem was. My hand discipline changed. When you throw a cutter, you're supposed to stay behind it and throw it like a fastball. Well, I got cutter-happy. I was watching the movement when I threw the ball. So I threw the ball, pulled my head off so I could see it, and that translated into my four-seam, and since then my four-seam has been cutting.

Cole: Do you have an idea of what needs to be done in order to right the ship?

Thompson: I do. I'm having a lot of support and help from Storm, DC, and all my teammates. I know where I want to be. Now it's just being able to repeat what I'm doing right and be consistent with it.

Cole: The strikeout numbers have been there, if not up quite a bit, for you this season. Is the curveball still what it was?

Thompson: The curveball for me this year––for the most part, it has been more effective than it was last year. And I feel more comfortable with it. Storm has really helped me out. The break has always been there. Even last year, the break was always there.

This year it is more consistent because I'm able to spot it up. I'm able to throw it at a certain spot and let the movement take over––instead of just trying to throw it as hard as I can and hope they swing at it. So I'm getting a lot more called strikes with it than I have in the past. That has really helped. And I've mixed in my changeup more than I have last year. I think those two pitches have really helped me stay here.

Cole: So the control problems are just with the fastball?

Thompson: It's just the fastball––just the four-seam.

Cole: Knowing that, is it ever difficult for you to keep from shying away from the fastball and relying too much on your secondary stuff?

Thompson: Oh, I've had thoughts in games where I'm just like, ‘Hey, I'll throw the curveball every pitch and just see if I can get it.' But no, it's Low-A. Obviously I want to succeed, but I know that once I can get my fastball down again, I'll have success and be able to move on.

Cole: What are your thoughts on moving to the bullpen? Do you feel like it has taken some pressure off you?

Thompson: Definitely. When I start, you come out every five days. And the past couple months––let's face it––it has been pretty bad. I haven't been able to go deep into games like I want to. Out of the bullpen, I know I'm only going one or two innings. I'm just coming in for short stints and getting out of there. When you start, there's a little pressure there to go at least five innings. You want to take the pressure off the bullpen and let them rest their arms a little bit and see how deep I can go.

So I think it's definitely a little easier. It's a little more stress-free in the bullpen. And I get to know, coming to the ballpark every day, that I might get to pitch. So I get mentally ready every day instead of waiting around for four or five days, thinking about my start and out-thinking things.

Cole: Last time I interviewed you, you seemed pretty confident that you'd pinpointed the issue and you had at that time. Do you feel confident that you're close at this point?

Thompson: I have flashes. It's kind of hit-and-miss now. Sometimes it works and it's good, and sometimes it's not there anymore. I think, for me––it gives me confidence that I have flashes of fixing it. Even though the bad times still come around, I know that it's there. If I can be more consistent with it, I think it will fix itself.

Cole: Are you still throwing side sessions even though you're working out of the bullpen right now?

Thompson: No, I throw a flat ground if I haven't been in the game for awhile. Lately it has just been in the games, though.

Cole: So you're mostly just going out there and trying to fix it during the games?

Thompson: Right. I'm getting my work in during the game instead of on the side.

Cole: The primary answer to this question is somewhat obvious. But what do you want to improve before the season ends?

Thompson: Physically, I'd love to be able to end on a good note––going into instructs or wherever I go. I want my fastball to be consistent again and have it go where I want it to go.

I think mentally, the big thing for me is that I tend to over-think a lot of things. I want to be able to go out every day with a clear head and just have fun––don't be stressed, don't be worried, and don't be over-working things. I just want to go out there and play the game.

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