With strong work ethic, Thompson eyes top 'pen spot
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Cardinals left-hander Zack Thompson has proved to be a reliever opponents must pay attention to, and his success from last year has carried over into Spring Training.
In Tuesday’s 3-3 tie with the Astros at The Ballpark at the Palm Beaches, for example, the 25-year-old served as an opener and retired three of the four hitters he faced. He was at his best when he struck out José Abreu on a 94 mph fastball, his fastest of the day, to end the first inning.
Overall, Thompson has had a great spring, pitching six scoreless innings with six strikeouts, four hits and two walks.
“I think I’m throwing harder now than I ever did before," Thompson said. "I’ll carry that into the season. Come May, June, July, I’ll see another uptick."
If Thompson continues to be consistent on the mound, he could open the season as St. Louis’ top lefty out of the bullpen.
“He has really looked good this camp,” said John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations. “The big question is, how do we use him? If we decide that he needs to be stretched out -- we are running out of time -- we could do it. But overall, he is a talent. He has the ability to spin it and he has a good fastball. He can compete.”
When the 2022 season started, Thompson was uncertain about his future in professional baseball. The year prior, he had a season to forget, going 2-10 with a 7.06 ERA as a starter with Triple-A Memphis. But things started to change once he made his Major League debut against the Cubs on June 3 last year. In that game, Thompson delivered a four-inning save to close out a 14-5 victory.
By season’s end, opposing batters hit .164 (20-for-122) against Thompson, which ranked eighth among National League pitchers and 12th overall in the Major Leagues (minimum 30 innings pitched). Thompson dramatically increased his velocity, going from 93-94 mph in 2021 to 97-98 in ‘22. It helped that he watched how bullpen mate/closer Ryan Helsley prepared for and executed his pitches in games.
“Hels used his body really well. He really uses his lower half -- it starts from there,” Thompson said. “Obviously, a guy that throws 104 [mph] does a few things right.”
Thompson also likes the philosophy that comes with being a reliever: Every day is a new day. You get right back out there the next day or the day after and focus on getting three outs, because relievers don't have to plan for a seven-inning start. As a starter, a pitcher could dwell on his last outing for four days before getting another chance.
“I’m getting three outs, six outs,” Thompson said. “You are not planning for a seven-inning start. It’s a little bit different preparation.”
Born to play baseball
For as long as Thompson can remember, baseball was always in his blood. It helped that his parents, Jan and Bill, are baseball enthusiasts. They worked extra hours at their jobs to get young Zack into travel ball and help him pursue his dreams of becoming a professional baseball player. In fact, every offseason they play catch with their son to make sure that his arm stays in shape.
“They still love being involved,” Thompson said.
If there is anything Jan and Bill taught their son, it is to have a strong work ethic. Thompson doesn’t want to disappoint his parents because he knows what they did for him.
“They never complained about it,” Zack said. “They always went to work. They always had time for me. They had time to take me to practice and games. They were always there. Always being there has had an impact on me.”
That work ethic helped Thompson get selected by the Cardinals in the first round of the MLB Draft in 2019. Since that day, Thompson has developed into a solid pitcher.
“If you look back to the pandemic year , right after he was drafted the previous summer, [it’s good] to see how he has evolved, how he understands how he has to show up … into camp in shape,” Mozeliak said. “From a mental side, he has really matured. I think he has sort of understands self expectations as well as team expectations. The ability to adapt and understand that he is giving the team some flexibility in the type of role he might be used in is also important.”