Cubs starter Keegan Thompson needed less than a minute to strike out Reds star Joey Votto in the fourth inning to end the frame.
Thompson started with a low curveball. Whiff.
Cutter. Ball, inside.
Four-seamer, almost the same spot. Foul.
Cutter at the top of the zone. Whiff. Strike three.
Only 58 seconds had elapsed.
“I think naturally when you’re doing well,” Thompson told the Sun-Times this week, “you want to get back on the mound and keep going.”
Thompson maintained his up-tempo delivery in the Cubs’ 5-3 loss to the Reds on Tuesday through a career-high 6 1/3 innings. He was charged with four runs.
Thompson also held the Pirates and Braves to one or fewer runs through six innings in his last two starts. He’s been the Cubs’ best pitcher in that stretch, bouncing back from a trio of rough starts to begin his official tenure in the Cubs’ rotation.
While Thompson’s pitch mix – throwing more fastballs and adding a slider – has played into his success lately, the bigger picture has to do with nonlinear development.
Thompson’s rough patch wasn’t a sign of regression from a lights-out start to the season. It was part of a process to guarantee his early success was sustainable in a long season, especially if Thompson was going to transition into a starting role.
“Being a multi-inning reliever is a different task than being a starter that’s going to try and eat up 150-plus innings for us,” Cubs assistant pitching coach Daniel Moskos said in a conversation with the Sun-Times. “So, being able to be efficient, maintain his delivery, prevent some injury risk there, all of those things are going to benefit in the long run.”
To get there, the Cubs slowed things down and identified checkpoints for a consistent delivery. But in-season adjustments are tricky. A starting pitcher has to balance focussing on mid-week tweaks but not letting them throw him out of sync on start days.
“Your game day is, ‘Go have fun and attack and compete,'” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “We’ll reevaluate after, and we’ll try to find ways during the game to make the adjustments if we feel like we need to.”
Thompson’s athleticism and ability to attack the zone and adjust on the fly make him special. And Hottovy saw the 27-year-old losing some of those traits as he homed in on things like stride length and arm position.
“We were trying to do small movements [one] at a time,” Thompson said. “And for me, we just needed to get back into moving as quickly as possible, instead of slowing things down, to get my arm in the correct spot. So that when things aren’t going correctly, I know that even if things aren’t in sync mechanically, I know how to get my arm to the right spot.”
Through that process of breaking Thompson’s delivery into three components and then speeding it back up, he’s now naturally hitting his checkpoints without thinking about them.
Thompson’s quicker delivery has gone hand-in-hand with an up-tempo pace from pitch to pitch.
“Him thinking about being a little more up-tempo,” Hottovy said, “it shows you how confident he is right now.”
On Tuesday, Thompson didn’t allow a base runner into scoring position until the sixth inning. He gave up a pair of runs on back-to-back doubles. The next inning, he allowed two one-out singles. Both runners scored when reliever Rowan Wick gave up a three-run home run to Reds leadoff hitter Jonathan India.