The evolution of Keegan Thompson
There is a strong case to be made that Keegan Thompson and Justin Steele are the two most important players to watch on the Cubs throughout the 2022 season.
As Jed Hoyer, Carter Hawkins and the rest of the front office forges a path for the future of the franchise, it will all come back to pitching — namely, starting pitching.
And if Thompson and Steele can continue along the progression they’ve shown this season — particularly over the last month-plus — that would be a decisive answer for the state of the rotation.
Steele earned a spot in the Opening Day rotation and has proved he is worthy of holding down that role throughout this season. Thompson, however, began the year in the bullpen as a dynamic multi-inning relief weapon.
When injuries struck the Cubs’ rotation, Thompson received his opportunity and he has made the most of it.
After his gem Tuesday afternoon, the 27-year-old right-hander is 8-4 with a 3.16 ERA and 1.20 WHIP over 88.1 innings this season.
He hasn’t quite been able to match the success he had in the bullpen, when he was 3-0 with a 1.38 ERA in 8 appearances. But Thompson has flashed his potential and learned valuable lessons along the way as a starter.
He hit a speed bump in mid-June when he surrendered 12 runs (10 earned) in 3.2 innings over a span of 2 starts in Baltimore and New York. But immediately after that rut, he responded with one of the best starts of his career (6 shutout innings, 9 strikeouts vs. the Braves on June 17).
In the 7 starts since his outing in New York, Thompson sports a 2.52 ERA, is striking out more than a batter an inning (43 whiffs in 39.1 frames) and has averaged more than 5 innings per start.
Tuesday afternoon was a big part of that, as the outing against the Pirates represented the longest start of Thompson’s career. He surrendered 2 unearned runs in 7 innings, striking out 7 and allowing only 4 hits without walking a batter.
“That was as good as we’ve seen Keegan,” David Ross said.
With each passing outing, Thompson’s confidence grows.
“I see a guy who’s confident in his ability and knows what he can do now in this league,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “And you’re starting to see him take off. Even the little blip of a week that he had, he was working on stuff in that process. So he knew he was gonna be better for it as he got through.
“Once he got through it, then we refocused on the athleticism and being aggressive in the strike zone; he’s doing things that he knew he could do. I think that confidence and his ability to trust his stuff in the strike zone — you see it every night he goes out there.”
Thompson made his MLB debut last season and began by making an impact out of the bullpen. But as the Cubs’ focus shifted following the trade deadline selloff, he was stretched out to join the rotation. He struggled in 5 outings (7.11 ERA, 2.13 WHIP) and averaged less than 3 innings per start.
But through it all, he was learning how to pitch in the majors — and also discovering what worked well for him.
Since Thompson has found more success in the bullpen than in the rotation early in his young MLB career, he has modified his pre-start routine to be more like his warm-up for relief appearances.
In the past, Thompson would warm up for a start by playing long toss and then throw 25-30 pitches in the bullpen. But he found he was wasting energy and “bullets” that he could be utilizing in a game against an opponent instead of throwing to an empty batter’s box in a bullpen.
There was one instance last season where he realized how his original routine was not working in his favor. Before a particularly hot start against the White Sox on Aug. 27, Thompson was drained and sweating profusely after playing long toss on the field.
So he worked with Hottovy and the rest of the Cubs coaches to find a routine that works for him before starts.
“Just getting my arm ready enough to go into the game is all I’m trying to do right now instead of trying to build up and throw more warming up and all that stuff,” Thompson said. “I’ve been able to hold my velocity far deeper into the game still.”
Thompson has also learned a lot with his pitch sequencing and how to utilize his arsenal. During his “blip” in mid-June, Ross felt like Thompson got away from using his fastball too much and pushed for the young righty to go back to what he does best.
Thompson also added a new pitch, working in a slider that he has slowly started to throw more often over the last few outings (while throwing his curveball less).
The slider is something Thompson and the Cubs have been working on in bullpens occasionally throughout the season and he recently felt confident enough to take it into games. He has thrown a slider in the past, but this is a new grip and new movement profile.
“It’s a good pitch and something we want to keep exploring but it’s also a relatively new addition to his arsenal,” Hottovy said. “But it’s cool to see him have the confidence to be able to take it and find the moments when he wants to break it out and use it.”
That word — confidence — has been a big key to Thompson’s evolution as a pitcher. With each pitch he throws, he is gaining valuable experience and learning more and more how to get MLB hitters out on a consistent basis.
“He’s a confident kid but he’s also confident in what he needs to do to be successful,” Hottovy said. “We’ve simplified a lot of things and he’s just aggressive.
“I think he’s gonna continue to get better. You’re gonna see him continue to find ways to hone in different parts of his arsenal.”
Thompson has been so impressive at points throughout this season that he has a teammate touting his ability as a potential ace down the road. During the Cubs’ trip to Los Angeles earlier this month, veteran catcher Yan Gomes told Rick Sutcliffe he felt like he was catching a “No. 1” in Thompson.
“He’s still kind of a younger guy that probably needs to learn his pitching arsenal yet but with everything he’s got — power fastball, curveball, slider, changeup — he’s got a good mix as a possible No. 1 guy,” Gomes said.
This is a catcher who has worked with Cy Young winners like Corey Kluber and Max Scherzer throughout his career.
Gomes believes the early-season success Thompson had as a multi-inning reliever helped build confidence for the young pitcher.
“I think you saw a little bit of the maturity when he made the transition to a starter,” Gomes said. “The reliever-to-starter mentality kinda changed a little bit and we wanted him to still think the same way as a reliever.
“You’ve started to see that back up again. It’s ‘air everything out’ and that’s just kinda how his game plays. That’s a big level of maturity, especially doing so well in the ‘pen and then making the move and having a small little hiccup and then being able to regather yourself and really compete every time he’s out there.”
Thompson hasn’t topped 100 innings in a season since 2018 (129.2) so the Cubs will undoubtedly be conscious of his workload as the season wears on. He is at 88.1 innings after Tuesday’s start.
He has earned the right to stick in the rotation indefinitely and if he can continue to evolve and mature, Thompson can help change the calculus for the offseason as the Cubs build a rotation for 2023 and beyond.