That his pitching coach considered limiting the number of breaking pitches he could throw in a recent outing says a lot about Jake Thompson. It isn’t because the highly-regarded Detroit Tigers pitching prospect lacks quality secondary offerings, but rather that he needs to do a better job of establishing his fastball.
Drafted in the second round last summer out of Rockwall-Heath (Texas) High School, Thompson is currently honing his skills with the Low-A West Michigan Whitecaps. The 19-year-old right-hander talked about his development — including the fine-tuning of his multi-pitch mix — prior to his Aug. 9 start against the Lansing Lugnuts. Also weighing in was his pitching coach, former Detroit closer Mike Henneman.
Thompson on his approach: “I try to set hitters up, using all of my pitches, whether it’s my slider, my curveball, or spotting my fastball. Mixing hitters up is the easiest way to get them out. In high school you can get away with just rearing back and throwing a fastball as hard as you can. I threw in the low 90s, so I could throw it right by somebody. Here, that’s not the case. You can rear back and throw a 97 mile per hour fastball, but if it’s right down the middle, more than likely they’re going to hit it. You have to be smart and use your pitches, and hit your spots.
“I try to pace myself. Obviously, there are some spots in the game where you have to amp yourself up and get a big strikeout, but if you’re a starting pitcher, you can’t go out there wired. If you do, things could end up going bad.”
On his fastball and slider: “I sit about the same as I did in high school, about 90-93. I don’t touch quite as high, but I’m a little bit more consistent.
“I throw both a two- and a four-seamer. In high school, I threw nothing but two-seams. They were 92 and moving, and most of those guys didn’t have a chance. When I got to pro ball, I started throwing both. The four-seam lets me hit spots easier. I can throw it outside to a righty, as opposed to a two-seam outside to a righty that runs back over the middle of the plate.
“My slider is kind of funny. I honestly have an easier time throwing my slider where I want it than my fastball. For most guys, it’s usually the other way around.”
On his curveball: “My curveball is newer for me. I’ve always thrown a slider, and it’s always been my go-to pitch. The curveball is something I worked on this spring, and I think it’s pretty good now.
“I stayed in extended spring training to work on my mechanics and develop my curveball. They wanted me to have a little softer off-speed pitch I could go to. My curve can be 12-6, but usually it’s more 11-5. It has some downward movement.
“When I first started doing it — throwing both a slider and curveball — I was kind of making sure the two were different from each other. A lot of times, when I first started throwing my curveball, it would end up looking almost like my slider. Now I’ve got the release point down to where they’re clearly two different pitches. My slider is usually anywhere from 80 to 84, and my curveball is 75 to 79 or so. It‘s never in the 80s.”
On his changeup: “I throw a circle change, a regular traditional circle change. I’ve always had a pretty good changeup; I’ve just never been in a spot where I’ve had to throw it much, so a lot of people don’t really know about it. My slider has always been the go-to pitch, because I can get lefties or righties out with it. You’ll see my changeup every once in awhile. I like throwing it to lefties to get a ground ball or a swing-and-miss.”
On his mechanics: “My arm slot is probably your traditional three-quarters. It had dropped when I reported this spring, and we worked on moving it back up. It was really just about finding mechanics I could be consistent with, and repeat. It wasn’t anything specific, so much as basically just getting me back intact with my body. I had slightly less velo and wasn’t throwing as many strikes.”
On patience and having been an outstanding hitter in high school: “It is kind of hard [to be patient]. Last year I threw half a season and then they shut me down. It was an innings thing. This year, I can’t throw too many pitches when I go out there; they usually never let me go more than five innings. But that’s part of the plan. They’re building me up — working me along at my own pace. It’s frustrating, but it’s definitely good for me.
“I do miss hitting, but I’m kind of past the point where I want to hit. But I’d definitely like to take batting practice once in awhile. It would be fun to be able to hit, but I’m doing the right thing. My future is on the mound.”
“I had Jake when he was 12 years old. He played with my son, on the team I was coaching, back in Texas. He was a man among boys. He was one of those early-developing kids. He was a stud.
“He’s had to learn, so I’m lucky to have that relationship with him. He’s got an ego. I put that ego in place and say, ‘Son, that shit ain’t gonna float now. You can’t throw it past these guys.’ He’s had to learn, and we talk all the time.
“He’s got his slider down, his curveball is getting better and his changeup is decent. He‘s got command of his off-speed stuff, but he’s starting to get away from his fastball. I can’t let that happen. Everything else is set up by your fastball. Establish in, away, all that stuff. He’s got the breaking stuff; it’s a matter of him more getting confidence in his fastball.
“He’s throwing tomorrow, and I may or may not renege on what I was going to do to him. I was only going to allow him to throw one breaking pitch to each hitter. That’s it. The rest are fastballs — not even changeups. He’ll do it if I tell him. Look , he’ll strike people out left and right with his slider and curveball, but he relies too much on that. His pitch count gets up too much. If he wants to get ahead with his fastball, then put the hitter away with a breaking pitch… well, you’ve got one. Pick which one you want to throw.”
[Note: According to Whitecaps broadcaster Ben Chiswick, Henneman did not limit Thompson’s use of breaking pitches in his Aug. 9 start.]
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