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Reconsidering Zack Thompson

Thinking about the Cards’ most recent draft, and what they did with their first pick, with the benefit of a little distance and a little perspective.

Colorado Rockies v St Louis Cardinals
I find rain delay picture almost universally charming.
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Today is the 26th of August. What that means in a general context is that we are coming up on the final summer holiday of the year this weekend, and soon the lush chill of autumn will sweep in, bringing colour and death and richly scented air and iron grey skies overlooking postseason baseball and creeping darkness, earlier every day.

What the 26th of August means in a particular context at this moment is that if the recent pattern holds, tonight should be the night Zack Thompson takes the mound for Palm Beach. Thompson, you will hopefully recall, was the Cardinals’ first round pick in this June’s draft, and following a brief stint (as in two innings brief), he was pushed aggressively up, all the way to the Florida State League (High A ball). So far the results have been pretty much overwhelmingly positive, as Thompson has struck out 31.2% of the hitters he’s faced at Palm Beach, vs a walk rate of just 6.6%. He’s been bitten by the BABIP bug a bit, leading to a 4.09 ERA, but 2.04/2.48 FIP/xFIP is more than enough reason to be excited.

Of late, Thompson has been throwing roughly every five days, only about an inning or two at a time, but on a regular schedule. Essentially, it’s the sort of program you would put a premium prospect on if you wanted him to avoid throwing very much after a fairly hefty workload during the spring, but also wanted to keep him on a structured, starter-like schedule allowing for regular appearances and structured time between to work on whatever it is he needs to work on. So far in August Thompson has thrown on the 2nd, 7th, 11th, 16th, and 21st. Five appearances, just seven innings, 29 total batters faced. That is both about as regular and about as limited as you can get.

So here’s the thing: I’ve been thinking about Thompson a lot lately, both in the context of what I thought of him at the time of the draft and the larger picture of the Cardinals’ system, not to mention the greater future of the franchise.

At the time Thompson was drafted, I wasn’t a big fan of the pick. He’s obviously an extremely talented pitcher, but I saw lots of red — or at least yellow — flags in his profile that worried me. I’m not a huge fan of the delivery, for one thing; he’s an elbow lifter, and while his timing at foot plant isn’t that bad — certainly nowhere near as bad as plenty of pitchers who have stayed more or less healthy for long periods of time — the way he gets there definitely concerns me. On top of that, he missed substantial time his sophomore season with a sore elbow, and had some shoulder trouble all the way back in high school. Risky mechanics plus multiple non-surgical but still throwing-arm-related injuries adds up to a really worrisome profile in my book.

The other thing that jumped out to me about Thompson was his command. As in, it wasn’t very good. Throughout his college career, Thompson posted higher than optimal walk rates, and beyond a simple inability to consistently throw strikes was his proclivity for hanging breaking pitches. I haven’t seen him throw very much as a pro, but the elevated BABIP leads me to think there could be both a little bad luck and still some flat breakers contributing on that front. Even a guy with great stuff can turn out to be a middling pitcher if the stuff doesn’t go where he wants it to.

So all in all, I didn’t love what I saw with Thompson. Too many walks, questionable mechanics, little bit too hittable, and a prior injury history.

In the time since the draft, however, I’ve reconsidered my position on Thompson, and my thoughts regarding the positives and negatives here. Admittedly, it’s probably easier to like a guy more than you did when he’s putting up great numbers at an elevated level it’s surprising to see him promoted to, but there’s another reason I’ve rethought things, and it has to do with another pitcher, a guy I wanted to see the Cardinals draft a few years ago, and the reasons why I believe they didn’t.

That pitcher is Walker Buehler, current co-ace of the Los Angeles Dodgers and all-around wunderkind. Back in 2015, Buehler was my guy in the draft. He was a force at Vanderbilt, but elbow issues pushed him down into the latter part of the first round, and I desperately wanted the Cardinals to take him, despite the concerns about the health of his arm. Instead, the Cards went with Nick Plummer, an intriguing if somewhat enigmatic high school hitter who had a difficult to parse arc his final two years of school leading up to the draft. Plummer never really got on track, with a wrist injury early in his pro career hurting his development (not to mention contact issues with wood bats that showed up even before the injury), and the Cards had to settle for crushing rounds 3-5, with a run of Harrison Bader - Jordan Hicks - Paul DeJong - Ryan Helsley representing a fairly remarkable concentration of value.

Buehler, on the other hand, immediately was found to have ligament damage in his elbow, and had to undergo Tommy John surgery. The risks, it seemed, had come to pass, and maybe all those clubs that decided Buehler was not a top five overall pick as he had been projected coming into the spring, and rather that he was damaged goods had been correct.

Of course, we all know how that worked out. Walker Buehler had surgery, rehabbed, and is now one of the best pitchers in baseball, full stop. The risk turned into reality, but so did the upside. And that’s how the Dodgers have built the juggernaut they currently field. They’ve bet on upside time and time again, accepting the risks as the cost of grabbing upside without having premium picks at the top of the draft, and they’ve used their vast financial resources to essentially insulate against that risk. It’s easier to win big when you’re placing huge bets with plenty of money in reserve, rather than betting the mortgage payment and needing badly to come away with something, rather than nothing, even if the something is something less of a something. If that makes sense.

So why am I bringing up Walker Buehler in the context of Zack Thompson? Because Thompson, one could argue, was essentially the Walker Buehler of the 2019 draft. His specific situation wasn’t exactly the same as the former Vanderbilt star, of course; Buehler was always a more polished product who saw injury concerns make him a riskier bet than he otherwise would appear to be, then came back from surgery with a fastball that jumped from 91-95 to 94-97, taking him even a level further than might otherwise have been expected. Thompson, meanwhile, has more vague, less pointed injury concerns, and is stuff over polish, with control issues that led to him posting a walk rate of nearly six walks per nine innings in his sophomore season.

But in another way, the two former SEC stars are very similar pitchers, or at least very similar bets. Thompson ended up the fifth pitcher selected this year, but based on talent and trajectory, it’s arguable he should have been either first or second. Nick Lodolo and Alek Manoah were the first two off the board, and while both are very talented, both pitched against lesser competition in the Big 12 (which is a fine baseball conference, but it mostly definitely is not the SEC), and neither have the kind of raw bat-missing ability Thompson brings to the table. Lodolo’s control took a huge step forward in 2019, and it makes sense he jumped so far up the board, but his ceiling is more like a mid-rotation guy unless something drastically changes in his profile. (Which isn’t out of the question, but, you know. It’s hard to predict that.) Manoah was maybe the best combination of stuff and polish, bringing both a high strikeout rate and a low walk rate to the table, but his overall repertoire is somewhat limited, despite boasting some real power stuff.

Compared to those two, Thompson has a clearly higher ceiling, with some of the least hittable raw stuff of any pitcher in college baseball. He could arguably trim his arsenal down slightly, but the future potential for four 55+ grade pitches is absolutely in there should he choose to develop all of them.

What I’m saying here is that in looking at the red/yellow flags for Thompson and deciding he wasn’t my cup of tea, I wasn’t appreciating the sort of bet the Kentucky product represents, and why it’s important for the Cardinals to take players like him. Much like the Dodgers, the Cardinals do not ever end up with high draft picks which allow them to grab the most premium talents. Occasionally a Nolan Gorman will fall for basically no good reason — or at least because of reasons that have more to do with all high school players rather than one specific guy — but you can’t count on that, even if you’re within the top 20. (And admittedly, even Gorman does have some concerns about contact and position that make him less than a sure thing.)

Most of the time, though, if you’re going to pull elite talent in the draft without losing enough to get into the top ten, even occasionally (Red Sox, I’m looking at you), you’re going to have to do what the Dodgers do, and focus on upside while accepting more risk. To be fair, this isn’t a foreign concept for the Cardinals; Nick Plummer was, in his own way, a bet placed on upside and player development expertise to unlock it. Ditto Delvin Perez, who has actually had the sort of season this year that makes it seem like all may not be lost when hoping for him to grow into something resembling the sort of impact middle infielder he looked like he could be back when he was drafted. But it’s easy to see high school hitters as high-upside home run swings, much harder to appreciate that the risky pitcher profile you maybe don’t necessarily like can be the exact same sort of bet on upside, and that the risk can be a feature as much as a bug, at least in the eyes of the organisation hoping they snagged a gem at nineteenth overall.

So how much has this changed my opinion of Zack Thompson and the Cardinals pick of him? I guess the answer is a resounding ‘some’. Which doesn’t really seem to resound a whole lot at all, now does it? But how much my specific opinion of this one player has changed isn’t really the point here; rather, in revisiting my thoughts on the player at the time, and considering him in the larger context of where the Cardinals are, and what they’re trying to do, the pick takes on a different sort of look to me.

For an organisation which has clearly decided it needs stars to get back on top, but isn’t willing to engage with some of the more certain methods of getting those star players, betting on a previously injured pitcher with some command and delivery concerns attached, but who has an ability to miss bats and roll up strikeouts in the toughest college conference in the nation, is exactly the sort of risk they need to be taking. In fact, both Thompson and Trejyn Fletcher, their second pick in the draft this year, fall into that category. Fletcher reclassified late and played his high school ball in the cold ends of the earth essentially, so there were plenty of clubs who didn’t feel like they had seen enough of him, even though he was likely going to be ranked as either the number one or number two high school prospect going into 2020. Thompson, as we’ve talked about here, has risks attached, but the potential payoff is huge. He has legitimate front of the rotation potential which very few pitchers taken in the first round this year possessed.

So ultimately, it’s not so much that I’ve completely flipped my opinion on the player, but rather that I think I may have given short shrift to the tactical thinking which led to him. It’s easy to simply say always take the best player available in the draft, but let’s face it: beyond the top three to five picks generally the MLB draft is so full of uncertainty that best player available is largely in the eye of the beholder. Organisations do not all have the same strengths and weaknesses in terms of player development, do not all have the same level of risk tolerance, and are not all in the same situation in terms of what they’re attempting to emphasise when they make their picks.

A club that needs stars, picking at nineteen, and with a proven ability to turn up averagish players from nearly everywhere, is probably exactly the sort of organisation which should be placing bets on high-risk potential future #1/2 starters, particularly if those players are on a good trend line but still have enough question marks that they never quite see their stock reach the heights of some other players. You know, pretty much exactly like Zack Thompson, who may still not be my favourite pick at nineteen, but is absolutely a smart pick all the same.