Pirates' Thomas envisions greatness for himself

February 28th, 2022

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The answer was unprompted, coming in response to a different question. It was shocking, yet imbued with confidence. It felt premeditated, as though Tahnaj Thomas was waiting for an audience. When recorders were rolling and ears were listening, Thomas seized the opportunity to speak his creed.

“For me, I’m going to be better than Jacob deGrom,” Thomas, the Pirates’ current No. 13 prospect per MLB Pipeline, said.

Bold? Unquestionable. The question that preceded this response, though, speaks to where Thomas is in the here and now. Starter? Or reliever? For while Thomas has bits and pieces that make up the composition of a Major League starter, he still needs to put them all together.

Thomas is tantalizing; that much is certain. His fastball is among the best in the system, sitting in the mid-90s and touching triple digits. Combined with a solid slider, albeit one not thrown very hard, Thomas has struck out 9.81 batters per nine innings in his career. As a converted shortstop, Thomas is still learning the nuances of pitching, but with his arm strength, frame and athleticism -- Thomas’s 6’4”, 190-pound build is also eerily similar to deGrom as well -- he certainly looks the part.

Before Thomas can come anywhere close to eclipsing this generation’s best pitcher, he’ll need to make considerable strides at Double-A Altoona, a likely starting point for this season. In 2021, he walked 5.19 batters per nine innings. He also allowed 1.93 home runs per nine, though High-A Greensboro’s field isn’t pitcher friendly. Regardless, both were career worsts.

The walks were concerning given the progress he gradually made. In 2017, Thomas walked 33 batters in 38 1/3 innings (7.75 per nine). In 2019, he walked 14 batters in 48 1/3 innings (2.61 per nine). Unsurprisingly, Thomas’s ERA and FIP were both down. When the walks went up last year, so did the runs.

To Thomas’s credit, he ended 2021 on an encouraging note. In his final eight outings, he walked 10 batters across 35 1/3 innings. That shakes out to a more savory 2.55 walks per nine innings. Thomas’s success will rely on more than cutting free passes, but should he consistently find that control, it’s not hard to envision him once again trending up.

“Honestly, I feel I shouldn’t blank most of it out,” Thomas said. “I think it was a learning season for me. You have to fail to succeed. Personally, I just have to pick out the goods and bads, what I have to work on, what I have to get better with from last season and bring it into this season and get better.”

In a live bullpen session on Monday, Thomas struggled to find the strike zone. His first 10 pitches were balls. The 11th plunked a batter in the back. The mild frustration was apparent. Following the session, Thomas, who did manage to strike out a batter with a fastball, had an extensive conversation with coaches and teammates.

Monday, then, served as a microcosm of where Thomas stands: electric, exciting, yet in need of polish.

Thomas noted that he made tweaks during the offseason to become more consistent with his delivery, to better maintain his balance. Thomas admitted that he had a tendency to fly open, which hindered his performance.

A specific area of improvement that Thomas pointed out was energy allocation. When asked who he tries to emulate, Thomas had four names -- deGrom, Walker Buehler, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, all of whom throw hard late into games. To Thomas, the trait that connects all four pitchers -- the trait that he wants to improve upon -- is pace.

“All of them start at one pace, and they keep that same pace throughout the entire game,” Thomas said. “Scherzer and Verlander, you can see, it’s, ‘Ah, I’m trying to go get 99 [miles per hour].’ Then, you have someone like deGrom and Buehler, who are nice and easy.

“But, if you look at their pace throughout the game, they’re still 75 to 85 percent. Their bodies aren’t moving on the mound at 100 percent. I feel like for me, by the third inning, I’m like, ‘OK, I’m starting to ramp up. I’m over 85 percent, I’m starting to get to 95 percent.' That’s when I’m starting to fly open and I’m starting to get out of my mechanics.”

If Thomas can find that command, that pace, this season could be his best to date. Surpassing deGrom? It’s brazen. But now that Thomas has given credence to the idea, one can only watch with intrigue and see how close he gets.