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The Blue Jays might have a high-leverage reliever in Trent Thornton

On November 17th, 2018, the Blue Jays sent an average hitter in Aledmys Diaz to the Houston Astros for Trent Thornton.

At the time of the trade, Trent was considered the Astros’ 24th ranked prospect and was ready for MLB innings. The Astros didn’t have room in their starting rotation, but in comes the horrendous 2019 Toronto Blue Jays. This trade used a surplus of middle infielders for starting pitching that the team desperately needed.

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This year was a rebuilding year for the Jays as they traded Stroman mid-season and they finished fifth last in baseball. There were bright spots of course since this was the rookie season for Vlad and Biggio. We also got to see a little bit of Bo Bichette, basically a taste of what was to come. However, the starting rotation was quite frankly very poor — except for Trent.

Thornton’s breakout 2019 season

Trent finished the season with a 4.84 ERA, 4.59 FIP and a strikeout to walk ratio of 2.44. While those numbers don’t necessarily pop, it doesn’t tell the whole story. 

It’s August 11th, 2019. I live in Ottawa so I’ve only been to one other Blue Jays game up to this point. The Blue Jays who owned a 49-72 record at the time played a home game against the New York Yankees who had a 77-41 record. While the Jays would go on to lose this game 1-0, there was a notable at-bat for the young rookie named Vladimir Guerrero Jr. While I could gush about his pinch-hit battle with the human piece of filth closer that the Yankees currently employ, I brought up this game as Trent pitched an absolute gem.

In six innings pitched, he only allowed three hits and one earned run; however, he carried a no-hitter into the fifth and the first “hit” should have been scored as an error on Hernandez. This is when I knew that Thornton, an unheralded prospect that got traded for Diaz, would be a mainstay on this Blue Jays pitching staff.

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Thornton finished the 2019 season with the most innings pitched for the Blue Jays with 154.1. My biggest gripe with him was that he was rather inconsistent at times, throwing a gem one game and then struggling to get past the fourth inning of the name game. With that being said though, you could tell that Trent was a good pitcher with his great cutter, a sweet baby curve and mid 90s fastball.

Coming into 2020 (pre-pandemic, of course) I was incredibly excited to see Thornton improve on his solid 2019 season.

Thornton’s injury-riddled 2020 season

2020 was a weird year due to the pandemic and all and the 2020 season was pushed back by quite a few months. Trent’s first start was on July 27th which was four days after the start of the season and from the beginning, you could see that there was something wrong. He was able to pitch 4 innings allowing only one earned run. Afterwards, he was placed on the IL.

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Upon his return over 3 weeks later, he was lit up allowing six earned runs in two-thirds of an inning pitched. The word “oof” is a good description of this outing. He pitched only one more inning this season three days later striking out two and not allowing a run, however, he was pulled out of the game after an inning not to return again for the 2020 season. 

After having surgery on his elbow for what was called “loose bodies.” I don’t know what the hell that means, but Trent was ready for the 2021 season.

Here we are now, in 2021

Trent has been a bullpen piece this season, usually as the long reliever or as the opener. He’s also been used as the opener and as a medium leverage relief pitcher. He generally pitches between the 5th inning and 6th inning after the starting pitcher is taken out.

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His advanced stats have stayed around his 2019 totals as he has a slightly reduced BB/9 (3.56 to 3.55), a higher K/9 (8.69 to 8.88) and a lower BABIP at .288 (down from .301). There is one stat that has significantly dropped which is his ERA.

In 2019, his ERA was rather high at 4.84. While it didn’t tell the entire story, it doesn’t look great. This season that ERA has dropped to 2.49 in 25.1. He’s had rough outings here and there, especially at the start of the season, but overall Trent has been one of the most reliable bullpen players for the Jays amid an injury crisis.

Trent is a good pitcher. He may not throw hard, but he is an intelligent pitcher. 40.6% of the balls batted are ground balls, meaning that Trent’s pitch count stays relatively low. This doesn’t mean he can’t strike out batters.

I want the reader to take a look at that 2514 RPM spin rate. While his fastball only tops off at 92.4 mph, it has so much backspin that it is an effective swing and miss. If Trent can get his fastball up to 95 mph, his fastball would be absolutely devastating as he already compliments it well with a nice curve and effective cutter. Below is a chart from Jeff Zimmerman that shows the correlation between spin rate and velocity. Right now Thornton’s spin rate with his fastball should be generating a swing rate around 8.3% (currently at 10.3), however with increased velocity, you may see swing rates skyrocket.

To add to this point, another fellow starter turned key bullpen pitcher named Ryan Borucki raised his velocity once committed to the bullpen. Fully committing Borucki to the bullpen allowed him to work out focusing on increasing his velocity.

So, where do I see Trent “Butters” Thornton? I believe his best role is out of the bullpen in high leverage situations. If he were to increase his spin rate, I think he could be a very important pitcher. At the same time, I believe he is a ground ball pitcher that gets weak contact with a good cutter. Trent could very well be a fourth or fifth starter, but that may be on a different team.

If you would like to see me use South Park’s Butters meme whenever Thornton pitches, follow me @Brennan_L_D on Twitter.