Milwaukee Brewers right hander Tyler Thornburg first appeared at the big league level in June of 2012 due to an injury-riddled starting pitching staff, and the consensus following his call-up that spanned one start was that it was premature.
Even in the months prior to his call-up, Thornburg, a 2010 draftee out of Charleston Southern University, was on path to play for the Brewers at some point, whether it be in 2012 or not. He had the ability, the track record, and the potential to make him the team’s top pitching prospect.
So, when a power-packed Toronto Blue Jays lineup pounded him for four homers–including back-to-back-to-back long balls prior to his exit in the sixth inning–in 5.1 innings, the Brewers sent Thornburg back to AAA-Nashville.
Between AA and AAA ball, Thornburg held a 3.20 earned run average with 113 strikeouts in 112.2 innings. Command, which has long been an issue with Thornburg, still struggled as he walked 3.0 batters per nine innings. He appeared in two additional stints for the Brewers, finishing with a 4.50 era in 22 innings, only allowing one homer in ten innings after surrendering seven through his first 12 frames.
Fast forward to spring of 2013.
Thornburg didn’t make the 25-man roster out of the gates, and went 0-9 in 15 starts with Nashville. Of course he didn’t win a game which means he’s the worst pitcher ever, right? Right. Because that’s the best way to measure a pitcher’s value.(Disclaimer: The above paragraph is sponsored by the Harold Reynolds Institute for Baseball Metrics)
Once again, a lieu of pitching injuries brought Thornburg back to Milwaukee for a June 5 call-up. After two appearance that resulted in four scoreless innings, he made three more starts with Nashville. On June 28, Milwaukee recalled Thornburg while optioning Caleb Gindl to AAA.
For about the 297th time, Thornburg was back in a Brewers uniform.
In 28.1 innings since, Thornburg has given up just seven earned runs (2.22 era) between three starts and four relief appearances. In his most recent appearance, he held a dangerous Texas Rangers lineup to just one earned run in six impressive innings.
What’s been key for Thornburg has been keeping the ball in the park. A big strikeout pitcher in the minors with a low-90’s fastball, sharp cutter, soft, effective changeup. He’s only surrendered one homer with the Brewers in 2013. To beat him this season, teams are having to small-ball him, and it’s proving difficult for teams to string together multiple hits, as evidenced by his 83 LOB%.
What’s interesting is how Thornburg has been missing less bats as he progresses, as evidenced below, courtesy of Brooks Baseball.
Thornburg’s reduced swings and misses may actually be a sign of his development as a pitcher. Typically, if a pitcher is heavy on strikeouts in the minors as Thornburg was (10.3 K/9 over 4 seasons), it translates, as was the case in 2012. He’s been far more consistent in his delivery, location, and, thus, results.
Last season, his issue was location of pitches up in the zone. The only significant difference in the outcome of batted balls has been in HR/FB. With another year of experience and development, he’s keeping more balls down and getting many of the same results as he did last season (excluding the home runs.)
Simply put, removing the home runs from his game has made Thornburg one of the team’s most effective pitchers.
Here’s a comparison of percent of swings on his pitches from last season and this season, based on location.
Notice the increased amounts of swings on balls outside of the zone and on balls in a batter’s “sweet spot”. Get more swings on balls and getting fewer on “hittable” pitches increases a pitcher’s leverage in a favorable count such as 1-2 and allows him to work ahead with first-pitch strikes.
Overall, Thornburg has been much, much more consistent. Last season, he had flashes of brilliance that lasted no longer than a couple innings; this season, however, he’s yet to surrender a “big inning” of more than two runs.
Over his last 3 starts, he’s gone six innings each time and allowed only one earned run.
There’s a lot yet to be seen of Thornburg, but, after fluctuating between levels for much of the past 14 months, it appears he’s here and here to stay.Following in the series examing Tyler Thornburg we’ll look at why he’s been successful in keeping balls in the park in 2013–and it will include screenshots of pitch locations!