SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Through October and the start of November, the ballfields of Arizona are well-equipped with offensive firepower. High-octane arms are also on hand, looking to quell the notion that the Arizona Fall League is a hit-first showcase.
Then, there’s Connor Thomas. The 5-foot-11 left-hander has bucked conventionality en route to being named the 2022 Arizona Fall League Pitcher of the Year.
Ranked as the Cardinals’ No. 24 prospect by MLB Pipeline, Thomas is a bit of a throwback. With a riding fastball that hovers around the high-80s/low-90s and a mid-80s slider, the 24-year-old pitches to contact in an age when missing bats is in vogue. What spells trouble for many hurlers -- pitching to contact -- Thomas has turned into his best asset.
“I’ve got to be fearless,” Thomas said of his mindset on the hill. “I’ve got to have confidence in myself as a pitcher knowing that what I do gets outs and is effective. Just trusting that every time I go out there, I’m going to be effective.
“I’m not afraid of contact because I know that’s where I’m going to be effective and last long into games. I feel like I’m an old-school guy. Just trying to bring back the classics.”
Selected in the fifth round of the 2019 Draft out of Georgia Tech, Thomas made six appearances over his six weeks with the Salt River Rafters and compiled a 1.75 ERA, the second-lowest mark for a full-time starter. Known for his high ground-ball rate, the southpaw struck out batters at an unforeseen clip of 11.9 K/9, far and away the zenith of his punchout odyssey.
Thomas’ secret? A revamped cutter. The southpaw honed the offering during the Fall League and decided to deploy it as a sink-or-swim tactic; if it worked, he’d keep it around; if not, he could toss it out of his bag of tricks ahead of next year.
Needless to say, it looked sharp.
“[The cutter] has been a difference maker for this league,” Thomas said. “Throwing the crap out of it. It’s just really kind of developed into a better pitch for me.”
While the Fall League offers perpetual opportunity to toe the rubber at big league Spring Training parks, the capstone moment of Thomas’ AFL stint came on a Major League mound Oct. 15. Starting as a part of the league’s tripleheader at Chase Field -- home of the D-backs -- the southpaw delivered a dominant 10-strikeout performance, tying him for the league lead in a single outing during 2022.
“When I step out into these stadiums, I’m like, ‘Man, this is the next step for me,’” Thomas said.
Thomas was the rare Fall League pitcher who entered the showcase having already worked a full season (135 innings). After making 22 appearances (14 starts) with Triple-A Memphis in 2021, the southpaw appeared on the doorstep of the big league roster. But some rocky performances to begin this year threw that plan into flux before he ultimately finished the year with a 5.47 ERA.
A maestro of the groundout, Thomas ranked second across the Minors in 2021 in ground-ball rate (60.5%) for hurlers who had amassed at least 100 innings. (That mark slid to 51% this year, dropping him to 32nd on the same list.) His propensity to elicit weak contact when combined with his aversion to yielding free passes (five in just 25 2/3 frames this fall) has made for a prospect blend that smacks retro.
Thomas didn’t exactly arrive in Arizona with momentum after a September that went sideways (7.83 ERA, .408 opponents’ batting average), but he drastically flipped the script in a hitter-friendly environment. Opposing batters failed to go deep off the lefty and hit just .224. The lefty credited his ability to throw strike one as a key turning point that unlocked his Salt River success.
While success among the game’s top prospects doesn’t guarantee future big league productivity, it’s a definite step in the right direction for Thomas after an unsatisfying regular season. His next hurdle will be rolling his success forward as he looks to breakthrough into the St. Louis starting staff come 2023.
“Clearly, my stuff plays to a level where if I’m staying in the zone, attacking, I’m going to have a lot of success,” Thomas said. “The biggest takeaway [of all the success] is just trusting it.”