When the Phillies traded Cole Hamels they were supposed to get 3 big time prospects and 2 other guys. It turns out one of those other guys (Jerad Eickhoff) should have been a bigger time prospect, but the eyes were still on the other prospects in the deal. Thompson was the 3rd player from the deal to make his major league debut. After dominating AAA, he struggled mightily in his first taste of the major leagues. But there are still plenty of things to like about Thompson going forward.
What Was Written Before the Season:
Role: #2/#3 Starter
Risk: Medium – Jake Thompson’s stuff has stepped back enough that the front of a rotation ceiling might be a bit out of grasp, but he is some changeup improvements and a tick better command from being a major league starter in 2016.
Summary: Jake Thompson was the last name of the Cole Hamels deal to come out, and the trade marked his third organization in his young career. Thompson looked to make a dramatic improvement after the trade, but in reality he kept his BB% and K% steady before and after the promotion. However, that doesn’t take into account his two good Eastern League playoff starts, including a complete game shutout against Bowie. Just looking at walks and strikeouts doesn’t show the improvements that Thompson made, as he should a large uptick in ground ball rate and drop in line drive rate, to go with a drop in his home run rate. On the mound, Thompson throws his fastball at 88-94 and can touch 95, however the lower end of that range is dominated by his two seam fastball. He mixes in a changeup that is fringe average to average, depending on the day, and an average curveball that has some loopiness to it and is more of a change of pace than a bat misser. The real weapon here is his slider, which is at least plus, with some evaluators in the past throwing a plus plus grade on it. The pitch is a bat misser, and he is not afraid to throw it in any count. For the most part, Thompson has better control than command, though he does command his slider well and has started to really keep the ball down in the zone. It has been noted that he does have some delivery inconsistency that can lead to worse command and bouts of wildness. Outside of the command, it will be important to see how he sequences and uses all of his pitches when his arsenal is geared towards winning and not development. There are some that think Thompson is best suited for the bullpen, where his fastball and slider would make him dominant. However, the strides he has made with his changeup and command make him much more valuable in a major league rotation. If everything progresses he can work as a #3 starter, with the fastball and slider leading the way and the changeup/curveball keeping hitters off balance. Given his workhorse frame, Thompson may be able to work as a #4 starter off of just the fastball/slider if he can keep his control together. Thompson has the upside of a #2 starter, but it will take one of part of his game taking a step forward. This gives him a bit of volatility, but also safety, because no matter the evaluation, it seems likely that he can be a starting pitcher.
2016 Outlook: Thompson will join a stacked Lehigh Valley rotation in 2016. It is hard to predict who will make the majors first, but the Phillies rotation is not stacked enough that Thompson won’t be able to force the issue if he shows that he is ready. He could be on a path that will have him in the majors at a similar pace to Aaron Nola during the 2015 season.
What Happened in the Minors:
Stat Line: 21 GS 129.2 IP 2.50 ERA 10 HR 37 BB (7.2%) 87 K (16.8%)
Thompson was arguably the most dominant starting pitcher in the International League in the time leading up to his promotion to the major leagues. His performance, which included a long scoreless streak, earned him the league’s Most Valuable Pitcher award despite him not throwing at all in August. The problem is that the shiny ERA and workhorse output (average over 6 innings per start) hid some deeper issues. Mainly, Thompson’s slider was missing all year, or at least missing in its previously dominant form. He would occasionally flash the plus to plus plus monster pitch that put him on the map, but he often had a pitch that was a bit slurvy and often not missing bats in the strike zone. This left Thompson reliant on an average arsenal where he had throw strikes and change speeds to keep hitters off balance. In the minors he was able to locate enough to generate a high rate of ground balls, and while he didn’t keep runner off the base at the rate that Zach Eflin did, he was stingy with the free passes. Locating enough also hid that Thompson’s command was still lagging behind his control, and in AAA he struggled to hit his spots and often hit quadrants of the zone, often catching a bit too much of the plate.
What Happened in the Majors:
Stat Line: 10 GS 53.2 IP 5.70 ERA 10 HR 28 BB (11.8%) 32 K (13.5%)
Jake Thompson made his major league debut on August 6th in San Diego and learned very quickly that the majors are difficult. After his first 4 starts he had a 9.78 ERA and opposing batters were hitting .289/.391/.605 off of him. It was clear he could not command any of his pitches and his inability to miss bats was exacerbating the problem. The Phillies then simplified his delivery, removing the large leg kick that seemed to be giving him timing problems, making him more direct to the plate. They also shelved his curveball (he would throw 2 over his final 6 starts). The changes allowed him to ride an unsustainable BABIP through struggles with location and missing bats to a 3.41 ERA over his last 6 starts. He was able to generate ground balls at a higher rate as well as get his home rate trending more towards his career rate. Both before and after the change however, he struggled greatly with left handed batters, and over his time in the majors he walked more of them than he struck out. The Phillies shut down his season after his September 25th start, he pitched 183.1 innings across the two levels. It had been a disappointing debut for Thompson, and his 6.20 FIP and 7.04 DRA indicated he might have actually gotten off easy.
Thompson’s 2016 season generated a lot more questions than answers, as well as a long list of things that need improvement. Before listing out his faults, it is key to remember that Thompson turned 23 this January and in no way are any of these flaws fatal to his future. The biggest glaring problem with Thompson’s 2016 season was his slider. His prospect stock was built on having a singular monster outpitch in his arsenal. Over the course of the season he flashed the pitch, but he struggled to show any consistent feel for it. To have any sort of meaningful impact he will need to regain this pitch. Like all young pitchers, Thompson needs to improve his command. Having consistency in his delivery should help with this, but without an arsenal of knockout pitches, Thompson will need to hit his spots. The last thing is a bit more troublesome and small sample size. The introduction of Baseball Prospectus’ tunneling stats combined with the data available from Brooksbaseball on Thompson’s time in the majors point to some problems with his release point. Specifically that he releases all of his pitches from difference slots with a 2+ inch difference between his two seam and four seam fastball. It is almost certainly a difference that major league hitters are able to pick up on. Once again finding consistency will be a huge thing for Thompson.
Now there is a lot to like about Thompson. His big workhorse frame is able to carry a large innings load, and so far he has proven to be very healthy (though he has a sore wrist coming into Spring Training). Even when struggling in the majors, he was able to generate ground balls at an above average rate. As much as his slider lacked consistency this year, it still is a great pitch when on. It is fairly unique in that it is more of a slurve, and sometimes can be classified as a curveball. When he has feel for it, it resembles Corey Kluber’s breaking ball, but when he doesn’t it is a loopy low impact pitch. Thompson also showed more feel for his changeup in 2016, averaging solid whiff rates on it in the majors. Up until his time in the majors, he was also able to limit his walks, and there is no reason to believe he should not be able to at least throw strikes at a high rate in the future.
Despite exhausting his prospect eligibility in 2016, Thompson is a near lock to begin the 2017 season back in AAA. While he should be able to dominate the competition in Lehigh Valley with his fastball, he will likely be spending his time working on improving his major league flaws. With Hellickson and Buchholz likely to be traded and the inevitable pitching injuries, Thompson could be looking at a similar call up timeline in 2017 as 2016. While it was a disappoint time in the majors for Thompson, remember that he is still young and he has time to figure this all out.