23-year-old Milwaukee Brewers pitching prospect Tyler Thornburg made his highly-anticipated spring training debut on Tuesday, conceding two runs on two hits while striking out one over two-thirds of an inning. The youngster strutted his fastball and change-up and looked smooth on the mound, though his statistical line didn’t exactly reflect that. It wasn’t the most invigorating debut for the young right-hander, but that’s to be expected from a young pitcher facing big-league caliber hitting with less than two complete professional seasons under his belt.
After watching Thornburg get his feet wet in spring training, Brewers fans are now itching for more. They now find themselves asking what he brings to the table talent-wise and what he projects to be in the long-term for the franchise. Luckily for Brewers fans, I’m going to go in-depth and try to shed some light on what this gifted youngster has to offer.
In less than two professional seasons since being drafted by the Brewers in the third round of the 2010 Draft, Thornburg has produced arguably better than any other Milwaukee farmhand (Wily Peralta excluded). He dominated rookie ball out in Helena in nine appearances (six of which were starts) shortly after being drafted. His velocity, which made him one of the most coveted small-school prospects of the entire 2010 draft, manifested itself early on and that led to an impressive K/9 ratio of 14.7, though that should be taken with a grain of salt since he only amassed 23.1 total innings. He walked a fair number of batters that season but made up for it in striking out just south of 40 percent of the batters he faced (which also should be taken with a grain of salt…).
Thornburg took to low-A ball at the beginning of last season still as a relative unknown through the system, but that would quickly change. The Charleston Southern product rattled off seven victories (and no defeats) in 12 starts and was named a Mid-West League All-Star. His performance warranted an appearance in the MLB Futures game in Arizona last July and also a promotion to high-A Brevard County, where he moreover pitched decently against the starkly improved hitting of the Florida State League. He posted a rather impressive ERA of 3.57 and perpetuated his strikeout success to the tune of a K/9 ratio of 11.1.
Here is a statistical breakdown of Thornburg’s minor-league proficiency, courtesy of Baseball Reference.
|2011||22||2 Teams||2 Lgs||A-A+||MIL||10||6||.625||2.57||24||24||0||2||1||0||136.2||94||44||39||8||58||0||160||8||3||9||556||1.112||6.2||0.5||3.8||10.5||2.76|
Physical Makeup and Delivery
Weight: 185 pounds
Thornburg weighs in at a smallish 5’11”, 185 pounds and uses every inch of his frame to its fullest potential. His physical makeup is noticeably similar to two-time Cy Young award winner and current San Francisco Giants ace Tim Lincecum’s 5’11”, 165-pound shell.
Since he doesn’t have the luxury of a big frame, Thornburg compensates by not only throwing his entire body into his pitches, but also by putting a considerable amount of torque on his arm; this could be a concern down the road. His lack of size and natural body mass portend that Thornburg could be destined for a bullpen role rather than a spot in a starting lineup. He’s averaged just under 5 2/3 innings per start over his short-lived professional career. If he has any intention of breaking through to and staying in a Major League starting rotation, his durability will need to at the very least show signs of improvement.
That said, Thornburg’s over-the-top delivery is sound and exceptionally repeatable. He hides the ball well and that helps to give him average to slightly above-average deception. Thornburg looks great out of the stretch in this clip and is able to pound the outside of the plate (as intended) against this batter, leading to a subsequent ground-out.
As you can tell by the three shots below, Thornburg has a knack for repeating his delivery. The picture on the far left shows the release point of his fastball, the middle shows his changeup, and the right another fastball. His over-the-top armslot repeats itself consistently, and his lower body movement and fluidity are near perfect by definition.
Thornburg’s velocity has been his biggest asset on the mound throughout his professional career. His fastball consistently sits in the mid-90s with flashes of upper-90 potential early in games. There isn’t a lot of movement on his fastball to speak of, though there have been flashes of some average movement last season. He can be somewhat sporadic when he overcompensates to add velocity to his fastball, and that leads to some inconsistencies with respect to his command. Thornburg’s success as a pitcher will live and die off his fastball and he’ll need to show some subtle improvements on that in double-A this season.
Thornburg has two respectable off-speed pitches that are able to compliment his above-average velocity well. He features what many scouts deem to be a “power” curveball to induce a lot of swings-and-misses, but doesn’t throw it for strikes regularly enough to classify it as a plus-average pitch. The other off-speed offering he throws is a plus-changeup that has the makings of a real go-to pitch should he pitch exclusively out of the bullpen at the big league level.
There are still scouts out there who believe Thornburg has what it takes to be a No.4 or No.5 starter in a big league rotation, however, there are plenty of scouts, or in my case “budding scouts”, who believe Thornburg’s abilities would be best served to pitch out of the bullpen, possibly as a set-up type arm. His durability issues in the lower minors suggest he simply doesn’t have the stamina to survive in the big leagues. I do believe, though, that he would thrive out of a bullpen role.