You won’t find a single Chicago Cubs fan who doesn’t love watching Keegan Thompson pitch. He has that bulldog mentality on the mound that fans haven’t seen from many of their pitchers for a few years and the right-hander has been a success story from the group of homegrown Cubs pitchers who are beginning to yield results at the major league level for this organization.
However, now that we’re within two weeks of Opening Day, Thompson’s bullpen spot may not be the guarantee that we all thought when pitchers and catchers reported to camp back in February.
The 28-year-old entered spring training knowing he’d be used as a reliever in 2023 with the Cubs and wouldn’t be stretched out after making 23 starts with the club since making his MLB debut in 2021. On Sunday, Thompson made his fourth relief appearance in Cactus League play and if you take a look at the box score, then you wouldn’t think much of the right-hander’s status for Opening Day.
Overall, the results have been great on paper, as Thompson still hasn’t allowed an earned run in four innings, surrendering just one hit and two walks, while striking out five.
Yet, earlier in the week an alarming trend was noticed by Cubs writer Bryan Smith, who relayed some notes from the Cub Reporter on Thompson’s fastball velocity.
Thompson’s velocity didn’t get any better on Sunday against the San Diego Padres.
The right-hander threw 18 pitches in his one inning of work at Sloan Park, where the radar gun was once again reading his fastball between 90-91mph. Thompson’s fastest pitch was clocked at 92mph, while his cutter was sitting at 86mph.
In 2022, Thompson made 17 starts and 12 relief appearances with the Cubs, tossing a total of 115 innings, the most innings he’s thrown since 2018. While Thompson wasn’t hitting triple digits with his fastball, the righty was averaging 93.8mph on his four-seamer, 92.8mph on his sinker and 90.1mph on his cutter overall last season.
I wouldn’t say it’s time to necessarily panic about Thompson, but I think it’s fair to say that something, whether big or small, is wrong with the right-handed pitcher if his velocity still hasn’t increased after being in camp for a month.
Who knows, maybe it’s as simple as Thompson having a different ramp up plan in the offseason because he knew he’d be used full time as a reliever this season and the new process is going a bit slower than in prior years. All of Thompson’s appearances so far in spring training have been limited to only one inning.
You’d hope that there isn’t an injury that’s the cause of the lower velocity, which at this point that hasn’t been hinted at by the team, but regardless of the reason, Thompson’s Opening Day role in the bullpen isn’t the lock we once thought it to be.
In his two MLB seasons with the Cubs, Thompson has made 23 total starts, but he’s been much more valuable coming out of the bullpen.
Keegan Thompson 23 Starts
94.2 IP, 4.94 ERA, 80 K, 40 BB, 1.52 WHIP, 7.6 K/9
Keegan Thompson 38 Relief Appearances
73.2 IP, 1.95 ERA, 83 K, 34 BB, 1.10 WHIP, 10.1 K/9
While fastball velocity is not the be-all and end-all for pitchers, it has certainly mattered for Thompson’s success in the majors.
So, with about 10 days left before Opening Day, I guess we’ll continue to look at Thompson’s progression on the mound.
However, as we’ve expressed so many times since spring training began, this team’s strength is its pitching depth. Not having Thompson in the bullpen for the first few weeks isn’t ideal, but it’s not like the Cubs don’t have other great options to turn to.
Depending on how Thompson looks over the next week, the door could be wide open for a few pitchers, including 25-year-old Javier Assad.
Hey Scarlet, watcha wearing?
So, what I’m reading, is that his fastball in April of last year was slower than it was in September of last year? We haven’t even made it to April yet. A lot of players start slow and ramp it up.