I’ve been repeatedly asking myself this question ever since his Major League debut.
Tyler Thornburg has been a- or the- top pitching prospect for the Brewers ever since he was drafted in 2010. The Brewers knew what they were getting when they took him out of college as a third round pick: a flamethrowing right-hander with a plus-breaking ball and a change-up that’s probably still improving.
Thornburg, along with a few others, has been talked about as the future ace of the Brewers. Everyone is high on him. He’s even drawn comparisons to Giants (used to be) ace Tim Lincecum, which I don’t quite I agree with since he doesn’t come nearly as over the top. Still, considering Lincecum has two Cy Young Awards on his shelf, that’s a pretty good pitcher to be compared to.
Thornburg lived up to that hype for pretty much all of his Minor League career. He dealt with injuries for awhile to begin his professional career, but proved to the Brewers that hitters at the rookie level and Single-A couldn’t hit him- he held hitters to a sub-.200 batting average while pitching for those affiliates. Fast forward to 2012, and that dominance continued at Double-A. He got off to a fast start this year for the Stars, starting the season 8-0 with a 2.54 ERA.
But this is where things probably got a bit crazy for him. All of a sudden, the Brewers started losing starting pitchers at the Major League level. When Marco Estrada was almost back, Shaun Marcum went promptly went down, leaving the Brewers with another rotation spot to fill. They had a couple of options of what to do at this point. The only Major League possibility was Manny Parra, but he hadn’t- and still hasn’t- started a game since late 2010. There were multiple Triple-A options who were Major League ready, such as Wily Peralta, Amaury Rivas, and so on, but none of them were pitching well enough at the time to be considered. So that made the Brewers go down one more level to Double-A, and who was the one pitcher that caught their eye immediately? It had to be Thornburg.
On June 19th, nearly two years to the day that Thornburg was drafted by the Brewers, he found himself already making his big league debut. And it was coming against one of the better offenses in baseball, the Blue Jays. He fared well for the first five innings, but the wheels came off with one out in the sixth inning, when he gave up three consecutive home runs to Colby Rasmus, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion. That spelled the end of his debut, which lasted 5 1/3 innings. He gave up five runs on seven hits while walking none and striking out two. It’s encouraging that he didn’t walk a batter, but the one glaring stat was the four home runs Thornburg gave up. He gave up six all year at Double-A, so that was already two-thirds of that total.
After that start, Thornburg was optioned down to Triple-A (which, oddly, was the one level he had yet to pitch at since he skipped it). He made one start down there (five innings, two runs, six strikeouts), but also spent a stint on the disabled list due to a very Brewer-like injury: falling into a coffee table.
Thornburg was recalled after the All-Star break and made one appearance prior to today, which came against the Pirates. He went two innings while giving up one earned run (of course that run had to be a home run).
Then, today, he had to make a spot start during the Zack Greinke hiatus. I don’t want to say it went well, but he at least managed to limit the damage. He went 4 2/3 innings while giving up two runs on five hits against the Cardinals. He walked four and struck out five. But, Thornburg needed 103 pitches to get through just 4 2/3 innings. Also, the two runs he gave up were solo home runs, which brings his season total to seven home runs given up. That’s already one more than he gave up in 75 innings at Double-A, and he’s thrown just 12 innings in the Majors.
These things bring me to my conclusion: he may have been rushed to the Majors. It feels like he’s trying to pitch like he’s still in the Minors, which calls for trouble in the Majors. He said himself after his start against the Jays that he felt he needed to work against every hitter, rather than just having to focus on the 3-4 hitters of a lineup in the Minors. That definitely showed today, because 103 pitches in 4 2/3 innings are far too many. He also needs to understand that leaving up low-90’s fastballs (that haven’t been set up the right way) in the Majors will usually result in home runs.
I’m not saying that Thornburg is a bad pitcher, or that he won’t have a successful career in the Majors. But I feel he was rushed, and there are still things he could work on in Triple-A. I would love to see him in the rotation next year (and I have a feeling we will), but first he needs to fix the little things.