Keegan Thompson: Pitch-maker and head-turner in Cubs bullpen
Throughout his minor league career, Keegan Thompson has always been a starter. In the big leagues, he’s worked mostly as a reliever.
But regardless of his role, Thompson’s pitching coach has a simple way to describe him.
“He’s always been what I consider a pitch-maker,” Tommy Hottovy said.
Thompson appeared in Monday night’s game against the Padres and flashed some impressive velocity on the radar gun, hitting 96 and 97 mph. He typically sat 93-95 mph in his first few outings with the Cubs following his promotion to the big leagues in early May.
That uptick is not a huge spike but it’s significant in what it represents — his arm is adjusting to a new role pitching out of the bullpen.
“It’s been a little tough, just going from starting to bullpen, getting used to throwing every 2 or 3 days instead of every 5 or 6 days,” Thompson said. “I think my arm is finally starting to get used to it, bouncing back quicker. That’s nice.”
The 26-year-old has been a major bright spot for the Cubs this season as part of the rise of young pitching within the organization. Thompson joins Justin Steele, Adbert Alzolay and Tommy Nance as rookies who have turned heads on the big-league pitching staff.
Thompson — a 3rd-round draft pick in 2017 out of Auburn University — got off to a spotless start to his Cubs career. Only two other pitchers have notched a scoreless streak longer than Thompson (15 innings) to begin their time in Chicago.
That stretch included a start against the Dodgers May 4 at Wrigley Field when Thompson held the defending champions at bay over 3.2 innings in the second game of a doubleheader.
It was that outing where it began to set in for Thompson that he was a big-leaguer and belonged in the Cubs clubhouse.
“Getting the embraces and high fives and everything after that start, I kinda felt welcome,” he said.
It also helps that David Ross has not been shy about throwing Thompson into high-leverage moments right away.
“You can’t not have confidence in yourself when the manager is putting you in big time situations late in the game or giving you a start against the Dodgers,” Thompson said. “It’s just been a huge confidence boost.”
Thompson admitted he was a little surprised at first when Ross utilized him in a start against the Dodgers or an extra innings relief appearance in Cleveland.
“It’s just been a lot of fun,” he said. “Getting to be in those situations, you dream about that as a kid growing up. So it’s nice knowing they have confidence in me to do that.”
Part of the reason Ross has been so confident in Thompson’s ability to respond in big moments is the young right-hander’s time pitching in front of big crowds in college in the SEC.
Drawing on that collegiate experience was key for Thompson early in his MLB career after he went over a year-and-a-half without appearing in game action. He joined the Cubs’ alternate site a few weeks after the shutdown ended last summer and stayed in South Bend from the middle of July until September.
The alternate site was better that nothing, of course, but Thompson said it felt more like spring training or offseason work than an actual minor-league season of development.
The Alabama native has hit a bit of a speed bump lately, giving up runs in each of his last 3 outings.
“He’s got one of the better cutters that I’ve seen and his ability to command that,” Hottovy said. “I think the biggest thing that’s stood out the last 2 games as he’s struggled just a little bit has been that cutter command.
“When his fastball/cutter command are on, he’s tough to beat because he can really spot up when he wants to and it’s got some late movement.”
That late movement has also led to Thompson missing a lot more bats recently.
Over his first 8.1 innings, Thompson notched only 2 strikeouts among the 35 batters he faced.
Since then, he has whiffed 41% of the batters he’s faced (23 strikeouts in 13 innings).
In all, Thompson has a 2.11 ERA, 1.41 WHIP and 10.5 K/9 in his first 12 MLB appearances and Cubs fans are dreaming about what kind of impact he can have on the pitching staff long-term.
“We see the stuff ticking up out of the bullpen,” Hottovy said. “I still want him to pitch. He can be explosive in the strike zone but he’s got a nice cutter, he’s got a really good curveball and he’s got a changeup that he can feature too. When we light up the radar gun at 96-98 [mph], it’s not, ‘I’m gonna throw all fastballs.’
“That’s what’s unique about him is he does have the ability to continue to pitch. He’s been a starter, he’s pitched out of that type of role where you have to execute pitches throughout the game. Now he just has more stuff — he’s trying to learn how to harness all that.
“He’s done a great job. It’s gonna be fun to watch the recovery, how often the stuff can tick up and not only how often but how much he can maintain over the course of the season.”
As for what the future holds, Thompson is ready for anything.
“I’ve always been a starter,” he said. “This is my first real experience coming out of the bullpen. It’s a lot different. It’s taken a little while to get used to it physically.
“But I’m gonna do whatever I can to stay up here. If they ask me to relieve, I’m gonna relieve. If they ask me to start, I’ll start. Just trying to help them win.”