SURPRISE, Ariz. – The fact that a starting pitcher in Monday night’s Salt River-Surprise game struck out 10 hitters may not seem like such a shock. Which starter it was? Well, that might have been less predictable.
Only five other AFL pitchers have struck out 10 batters in a game since game records became available in 2005: Zimmer, Phil Hughes (2008), Tommy Hanson (2008, twice), Jered Weaver (2005) and Bill Murphy (2005).
Rocker, still ramping up as he makes his first professional outings since signing with the Rangers as the No. 3 overall pick in this past July’s Draft, went two innings and allowed three runs on three hits, two walks and two strikeouts.
It was the 5-foot-11 left-hander, No. 24 on the Cardinals’ Top 30, who stole the show. And he came out of the gate hot, striking out the side in the first. He did it again in the third, while fanning a pair in both the second and fourth frames, clearly not remembering that he’s not known as a strikeout pitcher. Thomas has registered double-digit strikeouts twice previously in his Minor League career, once in 2021 and once this past season, both while pitching for Triple-A Memphis. Getting swings and misses isn’t typically a huge part of his game, as he whiffed 8.6 per nine during his first full season and 7.3 in 2022.
“I did not get that memo,” Thomas said. “I had something working for sure.”
That something was having three pitches working in his sinker, slider and cutter. His ability to mix those pitches well kept Surprise off-balance all night. He also didn’t get into much trouble in terms of baserunners, allowing three hits and just one walk. His ability to play his slider and cutter off of each other was a huge reason why.
“On my good days, like today, the cutter is more horizontal, moving side-to-side and my slider has a lot of depth to it,” Thomas explained. “They kind of play off each other because it leaves the hitter guessing when I’m throwing both for strikes, and that’s what I was doing today.”
He’s been doing it all fall. In three starts spanning 12 2/3 innings, Thomas has allowed just two earned runs, while walking four and striking out 17. It’s a vast improvement from a 2022 season that saw him struggle with Memphis, finishing with a 5.47 ERA.
“It’s just a matter of throwing strikes, getting ahead early and letting my cutter and slider work,” Thomas said. “My cutter’s been my work-on pitch.”
He also knows he needs to improve his changeup if he wants to have success as a big-league starter. He mixes in the pitch, but it’s been inconsistent. If the cutter is the work-on pitch here, the changeup is the work-on pitch once he’s done in the Fall League.
“It was the pitch I had the most trouble with throwing for strikes this year,” Thomas said. “I’m going to go into the offseason working on that pitch and hopefully have a five-pitch mix come Spring Training.”
He’ll need the full array of offerings because, Monday’s strikeout frenzy aside, he does not have overpowering swing-and-miss stuff. His fastball was 87-90 mph on Monday, on par with where he usually is, though the heavy sink on it has allowed him to post a 2.02 groundout-to-airout ratio in his Minor League career to date. There’s a fine line between weak contact and giving up base hits. In 2022, Thomas gave up too many of the latter, yielding 11.5 hits per nine.
“It’s the simple fact of why I developed a cutter,” Thomas said. “I found that hitters were staying on my two-seam and slider pretty well this year. When I started throwing the cutter, I started getting a lot more soft contact. That was the main goal of coming here, to develop that more and I feel like I’m back to where I need to be, for sure.”
That’s why Thomas was excited to come to the AFL even though he had already logged a career high 135 innings during his season with Memphis, causing him to feel a little bit tired.
“It was a positive thing when I got told, but at the same time, I was like, ‘Man, how many more innings do I have in this shoulder?’” Thomas joked. “No, I’m feeling good, feeling great and I’m happy to be here. I’m happy to have success again.”