Cubs’ Keegan Thompson pitching like he belongs

Cubs reliever Keegan Thompson is pitching like somebody who knows they’re in the right place.

“When you first get here it’s like, this is the big leagues,” Thompson said. “You’re not really sure if you belong and then you pitch a little bit, have some success and you feel like you belong and then you get your first taste of rough patches. You have to go through those things and adjust and try to stay even-keeled. I think just having the experience last year, just knowing I can throw here and belong here, just helps the confidence level.”

Right now, Thompson’s confidence level is pretty high less than a month into his second big-league season.

Over four outings and 13 2/3 innings to begin the season, Thompson has allowed no runs. Per Cubs historian Ed Hartig, Thompson is the fifth Cubs pitcher with four scoreless relief appearances of at least eight outs in one month since 1893, the last being Mike Proly in August 1982. In the wake of the shortened spring training, that has allowed manager David Ross to go to his bullpen earlier and not tax his starters more than he’d like.

“Keegan’s been extremely valuable,” Ross said. “Can’t overstate how well he’s pitched and how good he’s looked and how valuable that arm has been for us.”

Last year, Thompson showed promise, compiling a 3.38 ERA over 32 appearances. His season did end on a sour note after he essentially was given a tryout out for the 2022 rotation but posted a 7.11 ERA over five starts and only completed four innings once. He also was placed on the 10-day injured list twice due to right shoulder inflammation.

That experience, though, wasn’t the worst thing for Thompson’s development into a reliable part of the staff. Ross said that after 2021 ended, Thompson was able to decompress and reset, and arrived at this year’s spring training in great shape and ready to pitch.

“You can tell he has a lot of confidence in himself and I think sometimes just being at the big-league level and knowing that you belong here and having some success and also some struggles that push you to continue to get better is a good thing,” Ross said.

A noticeable difference for Thompson this year is his command of the strike zone. In 2021, he walked 5.23 batters per nine innings. So far this season, he’s shaved that number down to 1.98. He’s also been more efficient, throwing 68% of his pitches for strikes compared to 62% last year, and is tossing 12.73 pitches per inning, down from 18.11 a year ago.

Seeing those numbers, it makes sense that Thompson thinks the key to his start has been attacking the zone.

“Especially compared to last year I’ve been much better attacking the zone early in the counts and not falling behind,” Thompson said. “I think it’s just allowing my off-speed [pitches] to play a lot more off the fastball. If I was working behind, I wouldn’t be able to throw those pitches in certain counts and utilize those weapons as often as I have been able to so far.”

Thompson’s success then begs the question whether he should get another shot at the rotation after being sent down to get stretched out following last year’s trade deadline. But regardless of what comes his way, Thompson is ready.

“Whatever [my role is], starting, relieving, they want me to go long in relief, I’m here to do whatever they need me to do,” Thompson said.

Tuesday: Marcus Stroman (0-2, 8.78 ERA) vs. Max Fried (1-2, 3.50), 6:20 p.m., Marquee, 670-AM
Wednesday: Mark Leiter Jr. (0-1, 11.05) vs. Charlie Morton (1-2, 6.32), 6:20 p.m., Marquee, 670-AM
Thursday: Drew Smyly (1-1, 2.45) vs. Kyle Wright (2-0, 1.06), 6:20 p.m., Marquee, 670-AM

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