How Blue Jays prospect Thomas Pannone went from outfield to the mound

Blue Jays players in Dunedin, Fla. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO — Growing up, there was never one particle of Thomas Pannone that wanted to play anything but the outfield. Pitching was of no interest to him. Pitchers have to watch from the bench four games out of five; outfielders get to play every day. Easy choice.

But when he was in the eighth grade, one of Pannone’s coaches at Bishop Hendricken Catholic High School in Warwick, RI — a pitching coach named Bill Campbell — told him something different. Someday, Campbell said, Pannone was going to be a pitcher. Just watch.

Campbell kept reminding him of his prediction year after year. Even when Pannone was selected as an outfielder by the Chicago Cubs in the 33rd round of the 2012 draft, Campbell persisted. You’re going to be a pitcher. You’re going to be a pitcher. Pannone wasn’t having it. He declined to sign with the Cubs, and went to the College of Southern Nevada for the 2013 season to play outfield and improve his draft stock.

Well, a funny thing happened that year at junior college. About two months into the season, Southern Nevada reached conference play and needed someone to log innings. Pannone, who flashed a strong arm from the outfield, was summoned to the mound.

And he wasn’t just getting through it. The left-hander was getting swing-and-miss, blowing 88-94 mph fastballs past overmatched hitters. He struck out four over two innings in his debut; struck out eight over four his next time out; and 11 over seven the outing after that, his first-ever start.

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He kept playing the outfield through the end of the season, but he was so effective on the mound that Southern Nevada gave him 10 appearances and eight starts, even though he had only the one pitch. He messed around with a curveball, but it wasn’t any good. If Pannone threw 100 pitches in a game, 95 would be fastballs.

It didn’t matter. He pitched to a 1.84 ERA over 53.2 innings, striking out 78 and holding opponents to a .182 batting average. He did get redrafted that year, in the ninth round by Cleveland. But this time it was as a pitcher.

“And when I got drafted, Bill Campbell was one of the first ones to call me,” Pannone remembers. “He was like, ‘I knew it.’”

Five years later, Pannone looks every bit a pitcher. Now a member of the Toronto Blue Jays after being acquired in July, he’s coming off a terrific minor-league season that saw him put up a 2.36 ERA across 25 starts at high-A (5) and double-A (20). He posted a 9.3 K/9, while keeping his walks (2.2 BB/9) and home runs (0.9 HR/9) low.

He’s still throwing his fastball a ton (and still getting plenty of swing-and-miss with it thanks to his deceptive delivery, which hides the ball well) but he’s also vastly improved his curveball, developing a strong feel for the pitch that lets him vary its speed from as low as 68 mph to as high as 79.

He’ll back-foot it to right-handed hitters, he’ll flip it into the zone for a first-pitch strike, and he’ll bury it in the dirt for whiffs. Add in his change-up, a low-to-mid-80’s offering Pannone likes to fade down in the zone, and the 23-year-old has a pretty decent repertoire for a guy who started pitching at 18.

“This last year was the first I’ve truly felt like I had a solid grasp of pitching. I felt like I was bringing my game to a different level,” Pannone says. “I definitely built a good foundation the first three years in pro ball. But, the last year, year-and-a-half, I’d say I really came into myself and learned my game.”

Of course, there were growing pains. You don’t learn to pitch overnight. Through his first three professional seasons, Pannone’s mechanics were all over the place. His delivery completely got away from him, and he developed bad habits of throwing across his body and drifting off to the left side of the mound. That sapped Pannone’s velocity (he went all the way down to 82-85 mph with his fastball) and sent his walk totals in the wrong direction.

Using data gathered with the TrackMan radar system, Cleveland’s pitching coaches overhauled Pannone’s delivery, getting him back to a pitching motion that mimicked a straighter line to the plate. He stopped throwing so heavily across his body, and was able to release the ball further into his delivery, which helped bring back his velocity. By the end of 2016, when Pannone put up a 1.65 ERA over 43.2 innings at high-A, he was fixed.

Coming into 2017, Pannone was feeling as good as he ever has on the mound. He didn’t allow an earned run in his first six starts of the season, a 33.1-inning span that saw Pannone strike out 45 and hold opponents to a .118/.190/.182 slash line. Everything he did was working.

“I just went out there with full confidence,” Pannone says. “I could’ve had bases loaded — and I was just like, ‘No one’s going to score. No one’s going to score.’ That’s just how I felt. I was just that confident in my stuff. I was confident in my catcher. Everything was rolling at that point.”

That early-season run set the stage for Pannone to be named an Eastern League All-Star, complete his finest season yet, and, this winter, be added to the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster, which protected him from selection in the Rule 5 draft.

Now, he’ll go to major-league camp in Dunedin, with long odds to crack Toronto’s opening day roster, but an opportunity to show what he can do against big-leaguers for the first time in his career.

Barring the unforeseen, Pannone will begin his 2018 in triple-A Buffalo’s rotation. But if he continues putting up strong numbers, developing his secondary weapons, and pitching aggressively, he could be an option for the Blue Jays as soon as mid-season. One thing that never goes out of style in the big leagues is strike throwers. And Pannone’s exactly that.

“I want to be aggressive. I’ve always been that way. I’ve been aggressive since I was a little kid with everything that I do,” Pannone says. “If you can put the ball where you want it, I think you’ll have success. I know my strengths. I’m not a guy who’s going to come out here and sit 93-97 — that’s not me. I need to pitch smart, I need to work on the edges of the plate, I need to utilize my secondary pitches. I think that’s the true art of pitching.”

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