Thompson an outlier in the outfield

Member of famous basketball family finding success on baseball field

April 13th, 2016

It's OK. He doesn't mind you bringing it up.

There's not a hint of an insulted tone in his voice, or a crack in his million-dollar smile.

Trayce Thompson gets it. People want to ask him about his NBA All-Star, NBA champion and three-point-shooting champion brother Klay Thompson.

"People will always refer to me as Klay's brother, or [that] we used to be Mychal's kid," said Trayce, the son of former NBA player and Los Angeles Lakers forward-center Mychal Thompson. (Trayce's brother, Mychel, also played in the NBA.)

"I hope that's the case, because no matter how successful I am in my career, I want Klay to be more successful, because he's my brother and I love him," said Trayce. "But I'm definitely personally motivated -- not because of him -- but I'm motivated to carve out my own career and be my own man."

That opportunity could present itself in Los Angeles after Thompson, 25, was part of a three-team deal with the Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds on Dec. 16.

"I just want to contribute," Thompson said. "They're my teammates, and I want them to help the team win. I want the best for everybody. But I believe in myself, and I know what type of player I can be and what type of player I will be. I want to be up and want to play."

Sounds like a basketball player. He wants the ball.

And yes, Thompson was a basketball player -- until his senior year at Orange County's Santa Margarita Catholic High School. But he left the sport for the one he truly loved.

"Ever since he could walk, the first thing he picked up was a bat," Mychal said. "It was his first love. Nothing could change that. Nothing could replace it."

The Thompson kids were already blessed with a concrete-thick athletic base. Mychal was the first pick in the 1978 NBA draft out of Minnesota and went on to play 12 seasons in the NBA, including four as a Los Angeles Laker and teammate of Dodgers owner Magic Johnson. Mom Julie was a prep track and field star in the state of Washington and a former University of San Francisco volleyball player.

The family never pushed sports on the boys, Trayce and Mychal said. Trayce said he and his brothers just wanted to be like their dad and his famous friends -- including Hall of Famer Rod Carew, who had a deep impact on Trayce.

Mychal knew Carew, the former Twins superstar, from their Minnesota days. The families reconnected when Carew's stepson became a teammate of Klay's on the Santa Margarita basketball team. Carew began giving Trayce tips, which led to him working with the teenager.

"At the time, I was young. I was only 14 years old. I really didn't know too much about him," Thompson said of Carew. "But as I got older, I realized how amazing he was -- a once-in-a-generation-type hitter and player. He was very talented and kept things extremely simple. For me as a very young kid, it helped me tremendously. … I was very thankful of him."

Thompson calls Carew a mentor and said his simple approach to hitting was what impacted him most -- use the whole field, take what the pitcher gives you. But at a point during the early part of his professional career, Trayce made things harder on himself. He said he began to overthink things and started to play the guessing game more with pitchers, while also becoming too pull-conscious.

Thompson ended 2012 in Triple-A Charlotte, but he spent the entire next two seasons in Double-A Birmingham. He said his awakening came midway through the 2014 season, when Birmingham manager Julio Vinas sat him down and gave him a stern talk.

The message was that if you don't use the whole field, you'll never make it to the big leagues. It resonated because, in Thompson's experience, that's the sort of message that the manager lets the hitting coach give, so it must've been pretty important.

Thompson said he started making better contact and to all directions. The next season, his time came and he made his Major League debut on Aug. 4, 2015. In 44 games (135 plate appearances), he batted .295/.363/.533/.896 with five home runs, and he played all three outfield positions, netting three total defensive runs saved and a positive UZR at 2.5.

"Trayce is a confident kid," said second baseman Micah Johnson, who along with Frankie Montas, came to the Dodgers in the December trade. "He had to work hard in the Minor Leagues. He kept working and working and working, had to repeat a couple of levels. You see it paid off when he got called up. He's got this quiet confidence and he plays so hard and works so hard."

Thompson says all the right things. He's thankful for his time in Chicago and thankful for the opportunity with the Dodgers. He said he didn't hear from Magic Johnson after the trade, nor did he expect to. He's owed nothing and has to prove himself.

"That's how Trayce is," Mychal said. "He wants to earn everything. He never expects anything. Baseball makes you earn it. It's what it teaches you and what he expects."