Blue Jays’ Trent Thornton knows keeping calm is key ahead of 2020 debut

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Trent Thornton delivers a pitch during the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the New York Yankees. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

TORONTO — At the end of 2019, Trent Thornton took an entire month off from baseball. He needed it. Through a long minor-league season with the Houston Astros in 2018, a trip to the Arizona Fall League, an unexpected trade to the Toronto Blue Jays that winter, an intense spring training competition that saw his role fluctuate as he fought to make a team, and then his first full major-league season in 2019, Thornton had a lot of baseball.

But he wasn’t expecting to take this much time off. He reported to spring training this February refreshed and ready to get back to work on some of the strides he made late in 2019, as his repertoire evolved and his mechanics refined. But then COVID-19 shut it all down. And now, four months later, he’s finally about to get back into a real, live game that counts.

“I’m pretty jacked up for it,” Thornton said, looking forward to his scheduled start Monday night against the Washington Nationals. “Obviously they won the World Series and have a really good squad over there. It’s also the first time I’m ever going to pitch against them. So, I’m chomping at the bit to get out there.

“I’m already jittery. That wait was really long. And pretty frustrating. So, for baseball to actually be here and us to be able to play — it’s awesome.”

Controlling those emotions and maintaining a calm demeanour on the mound will be crucial for Thornton come Monday night. He spent much of summer camp continuing to work on breathing exercises and in-games routines he can utilize in order to keep his heart rate down and prevent over-throwing. It’s something he struggled with last year, when poor results sped him up, and bad innings compounded into bad outings.

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“We’ve got to calm him down a little bit,” said Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker. “He’s awesome. He’s got great potential, great major-league ability. But he tends to over-throw at times. We talk about it all the time. When he can settle down a little bit more, I think he’s really going to excel and take off.”

Thornton’s delivery is an intricate one with lots of moving pieces, from the big wind-up that brings his knee up to his head, to the way his hands go up, down, then back up again, to the extreme spin he puts on the ball as it comes off his fingers. There’s a lot going on. And a lot that can go wrong, as it did on a couple occasions last season when the right-hander was tipping his pitches.

That was one of the reasons for Thornton’s extreme inconsistency in 2019. Another was his command, which could come and go from start to start, sometimes inning to inning. Thornton has no shortage of swing-and-miss stuff, but if he can’t locate it consistently he won’t be able to put up the innings he ought to.

“I think he’s close. I think he’s done a real nice job at this point to get himself ready, to refine his stuff, to understand who he is and where he’s going to have the most success at the major-league level from a pitch standpoint and location standpoint,” Walker said. “He’s worked really hard on that. The signs are all really encouraging with him. Utilizing that fastball at the top of the zone. His breaking stuff has been outstanding. I think he’s getting smarter. And I think anybody, the more time you’re around the environment, the more experience you can gain at the major-league level, it’s only going to benefit you.”

Perhaps the biggest benefit Thornton experienced in 2019 was opportunity. He pitched 32 times, leading the Blue Jays with 154.1 innings. Taking his first trip through the big-leagues, Thornton had plenty of chances to learn what works for him. And, more importantly, what doesn’t.

Much was learned. There were gems and there were shellings, producing a 4.84 ERA in the end with 8.7 K/9 and 3.6 BB/9. The stuff was undeniable. The approach was what needed work. That’s why Thornton’s biggest test this year will be consistency, and not letting a challenging outing spiral into a disastrous one. That’s where controlling his adrenaline comes into play.

In his final pre-season tune up against the Red Sox last week, Thornton worked quickly and efficiently, throwing three shutout innings with only 43 pitches. That stands in stark contrast to the last time he pitched at Fenway Park, when the Red Sox chased him from a start after he’d recorded only four outs on 48 pitches. He gave up five runs on five hits that day in one of his worst outings of the season.

“I’m a pretty emotional pitcher. I get pretty fired up and amped up,” he said. “I’ve got to be able to slow the game down and breathe. And that’s something I’ve been focusing on, especially my last start in Boston where I just wanted to try to stay as calm as possible and, between each pitch, take that breath and just mentally reset and refocus. So, that’s definitely something that I’m going to try to take into my next start.”

Thornton’s also taking six pitches into his next start — four- and two-seam fastballs, a cutter, a changeup, a curveball and a slider. It’s a lot of weapons, and it makes the work he does during between-start bullpens crucial. But if he can stay on top of them, he’ll have a trove of sequences he can use to show hitters different looks his first, second and third time through an order.

Of course, having a half-dozen pitches also gives Thornton the luxury of shelving one or two if they don’t feel right in his pre-start bullpen. Or even amidst an outing.

“You have to have some feel for what’s working and what’s not working within the game,” he said. “Obviously, things can change and you’ve got to be able to make those adjustments on the fly. So, I have my repertoire of what I want to throw and what I want to accomplish. But if one pitch is working better than the next, then you might have to scratch a pitch.”

Thornton can even remove a pitch from his arsenal for a couple starts if it’s not working for him, and spend his side sessions fine tuning it until it’s back where he wants it.

While he was working on his changeup last summer, he rarely threw it during June and July before bringing it back in August. He went through a similar process with his curveball, minimizing its usage in July until he got used to a new grip — learned from Clay Buchholz — and started throwing it far more often through the end of the season.

Thornton backed away from his four-seamer as the year went on, as well, incorporating more cutters and two-seamers as the league accumulated video on him. The spin rates on his fastball and curveball are exceptional and sit among the top 15 per cent of MLB pitchers, but the spin on his cutter isn’t far behind. And considering he put up a 30.1 per cent whiff rate with the pitch last season — second only to his slider — it’ll likely continue to be an important weapon going forward.

But most important will be controlling that heart rate. And that’s why it stands to reason that Thornton may be the only pitcher in baseball who won’t miss the presence of fans in a stadium. Or at least the only one who will admit it.

“I’m sure it’s going to have an effect on the adrenaline and all that stuff,” he said. “But just being able to focus on breathing and slowing the game down is something that I need to do personally. I’ve had some conversations with a couple teammates on what they see and their advice, as well. So, I’m just kind of taking everything in. And I’m going to use it.”

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