There’s a strong case to be made that Keegan Thompson and Justin Steele are the two most important players to watch on the Cubs throughout the 2022 season.
As Jed Hoyer, Carter Hawkins and the rest of the front office chart a course for the future of the franchise, it will all come back to the pitch – namely, start pitching.
And if Thompson and Steele can continue the progression they’ve shown this season — especially over the past month and more — that would be a game-changing answer for the state of the rotation.
Steele earned a spot in the opening day rotation and proved himself worthy of keeping that role throughout this season. Thompson, however, started the year in the bullpen as a dynamic, multi-inning backup weapon.
When injuries hit the Cubs’ rotation, Thompson had his chance and he made the most of it.
The 27-year-old right-hander is 7-4 with a 3.43 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in 81.1 innings this season.
He wasn’t quite able to match the success he had in the bullpen, when he was 3-0 with a 1.38 ERA in 8 appearances. But Thompson showed potential and learned valuable lessons along the way as a starter.
He hit a speed bump in mid-June when he gave up 12 runs (10 earned) in 3.2 innings over a 2-start span at Baltimore and New York. But immediately after that rut, he responded with the best start of his career (6 shutout innings, 9 strikeouts against the Braves on June 17).
In the 6 starts since coming out in New York, Thompson sports a 3.06 ERA, strikes out more than one batter per inning (36 puffs in 32.1 frames) and has averaged over 5 innings per start.
He will take the ball at Wrigley Field on Tuesday night for the first time in the second half.
“I see a guy who is confident in his abilities and knows what he can do now in this league,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “And you start to see it take off. Even the little jolt of a week he had, he was working on stuff in this process. So he knew he was going to fare better as he passed.
“Once he got through it, we refocused on athleticism and aggression in the strike zone; he does things he knew he could do. I think that confidence and his ability to trust his stuff in the strike zone – you see that every night he goes out.
Thompson made his MLB debut last season and started out making an impact outside of the bullpen. But as the Cubs’ attention shifted after the trade deadline was liquidated, he was stretched to join the rotation. He struggled in 5 outings (7.11 ERA, 2.13 WHIP) and averaged less than 3 innings per start.
But through it all, he was learning how to pitch in the majors — and also discovering what worked well for him.
Since Thompson found more success in the bullpen than in the rotation early in his fledgling MLB career, he changed his pre-start routine to more closely resemble his warm-up for relief appearances.
In the past, Thompson warmed up to start by playing long pitches and then throwing 25-30 pitches into the bullpen. But he found he was wasting energy and “balls” that he could use in a game against an opponent instead of throwing them into a batter’s empty box in a bullpen.
There was one instance last season where he realized how his original routine wasn’t working in his favor. Prior to a particularly hot start against the White Sox on August 27, Thompson was exhausted and sweating profusely after playing the field for a long time.
So he worked with Hottovy and the rest of the Cubs coaches to find a routine that worked for him before the start.
“All I’m trying to do right now is just get my arm ready enough to get into the game instead of trying to build and throw more warm-ups and stuff,” Thompson said. “I was able to maintain my speed much deeper into the game.”
Thompson also learned a lot with his pitch sequencing and how to use his arsenal. During his mid-June blip, David Ross felt like Thompson had strayed too far from his fastball and pushed the young right-hander back to what he does best.
Thompson also added new ground, working in a slider that he slowly started throwing more often in recent outings (while also throwing his curveball less).
The slider is something Thompson and the Cubs have worked on occasionally in the bullpen throughout the season and he’s recently felt confident enough to incorporate it into games. It has launched a slider in the past, but this is a new grip and motion profile.
“It’s good ground and something we want to keep exploring, but it’s also a relatively new addition to his arsenal,” Hottovy said. “But it’s cool to see him have the confidence to be able to pick it up and find the times when he wants to pull it out and use it.”
That word — confidence — has been a big key to Thompson’s development as a pitcher. With every pitch he throws, he gains valuable experience and learns more and more how to get MLB batters out consistently.
“He’s a confident kid, but he’s also confident in what he needs to do to be successful,” Hottovy said. “We’ve simplified a lot of things and he’s just aggressive.
“I think he’s going to keep improving. You’re going to see him keep finding ways to improve in different parts of his arsenal.
Thompson has been so impressive at points throughout this season that he has a teammate touting his abilities as a potential ace on the road. During the Cubs’ trip to Los Angeles earlier this month, veteran receiver Yan Gomes told Rick Sutcliffe he felt like he was catching a “No.” 1” to Thompson.
“He’s still a younger guy who probably still needs to learn his pitching arsenal, but with everything he’s got – power fastball, curveball, slider, change – he’s got a good mix as a No. 1 possible,” Gomes said.
He’s a catcher who’s worked with Cy Young winners like Corey Kluber and Max Scherzer throughout his career.
Gomes believes Thompson’s early-season success as a multi-inning reliever helped boost the young pitcher’s confidence.
“I think you saw a bit of maturity when he made the transition to a starter,” Gomes said. “The starting reliever mentality has changed a bit and we wanted him to still think like a reliever.
“You started seeing that again. It’s “broadcast everything” and that’s kind of how his game plays out. It’s a great level of maturity, especially being so good in the bullpen, and then moving and having a little hiccup, and then being able to pull himself together and really compete every time he’s out there.
Thompson hasn’t topped 100 innings in a season since 2018 (129.2), so the Cubs will no doubt be aware of his workload as the season progresses. He’s 81.1 innings heading into Tuesday’s start.
He’s earned the right to remain in the rotation indefinitely and if he can continue to evolve and mature, Thompson can help change the calculus for the offseason as the Cubs build a rotation for 2023 and beyond.