Stronger Trent Thornton aims to secure job in Blue Jays’ rotation

The Toronto Blue Jays executed a double steal to round off an eventful first spring training game to defeat the New York Yankees 2-1.

TAMPA – As he strolled through the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse one recent morning, Trent Thornton was stopped by a teammate who patted the right-hander on the chest and gave him an approving nod.

“Yeah, I’m super-big now,” Thornton said, grinning in self-deprecation at the hyperbole.

He may not be all swole, as the kids say these days, but the 26-year-old favourite for the fifth starter’s job is certainly stronger this spring after dramatically intensifying the amount of weight he pushed around during his off-season workouts.

The regimen, created for him by the Blue Jays, was vastly different from those in years past, when he’s “been nervous about getting bulkier” out of fear it would come at the expense of his athleticism. The key was finding a balance in order to build up more so he’s better prepared to withstand the rigours of hauling starter innings over the course of a big-league season.

“I’ve stressed flexibility my whole life so I wanted to make sure I was doing everything necessary to keep that flexibility and range of motion,” Thornton said. “Normally, during the off-season prior to this one, I hadn’t gotten much treatment or soft tissue (work) and now I was going twice a week, making sure my muscles were loose.

“Deadlifts were one of my biggest things, getting my legs stronger. I definitely focused on my lower half, but everything I did, I intensified the weight. I’m not saying I’m jacked by any means, because I’m not, but I wanted to prove to myself that I’m stronger than I thought I am, so I pushed myself harder as far as actual weight goes.”

The looming grind will actually determine how many dividends he reaps from all that.

More immediate feedback on another winter focal point, honing his changeup, came Saturday during two clean innings of work in the Blue Jays’ 2-1 win over the New York Yankees in their Grapefruit League opener.

Thornton was a little wild out of the gate, walking leadoff batter D.J. LeMahieu, before settling quickly and retiring six straight. Most important from his vantage point were the three changeups he threw that “felt really, really good.”

“I got a swing and miss,” he continued. “I threw one for a ball, but it was a strike-to-ball type pitch, depending on what the count was. And I got a weak contact…

“It has been the worst pitch for me every year,” he added later. “To feel that confident in it, this early, is definitely a good sign for me because I think it can open up a big door for me just being able to play other pitches off that. It’s another huge weapon because I think the changeup is one of the best pitches in baseball.”

To put that in perspective, Statcast data doesn’t identify a single change he threw in 2019, when he was the only Blue Jays starter to both start and finish the season in the rotation and led the team with 154.1 innings pitched and 149 strikeouts.

Thornton’s primary weapons are his fastball, slider and curveball, all thrown at an 88th percentile spin rate that suggests significant upside for the offerings. He’s also throwing a two-seamer and a cutter, but fastball command, something that was rusty Saturday, remains pivotal.

“I know my stuff plays, my stuff is good enough,” he said. “If I’m behind in counts, it doesn’t matter.”

A reliable changeup helps a pitcher control bat speed and can sometimes be used to get easy outs early in the count. Thornton began tinkering with the pitch toward the end of last season, when he began copying some of Clay Buchholz’s grips.

“I didn’t just pick it up, I stole it from him,” Thornton quipped of how he’s now gripping his change, which “fades down and away (from righties) and plays off the two-seam that I picked up as well.”

“It’s just coming out of my hand much better on a more consistent basis and that’s the biggest thing for me, because I would cut changeups,” he added. “I would just throw them in the first, miss up. But now I’m getting that pretty consistent action with it where I can pretty much put it where I want to.”

Manager Charlie Montoyo pointed to the change as one of the afternoon’s highlights for Thornton, pleased enough to add that, “I’m hoping he builds from that and takes it into the season.”

The exact role for Thornton is officially undetermined, although given all he accomplished last season he’d really need to show poorly and have someone pitch him out of a job.

Still, he’s wisely taking nothing for granted, saying the ostensible competition with Shun Yamaguchi and the delayed Ryan Borucki, who is set to start playing catch Monday after experiencing elbow tightness, “lights a fire under your butt.”

Hence the work this winter, with visions of not only surpassing his inning total but also bettering the nine quality starts he delivered as a rookie, an important personal measure of performance.

“It was a little hard to do last year because I was on a pitch count and I was on an innings-limit type thing, but if I have a quality start, I’m doing everything right,” Thornton said. “I’m getting deep into the game, I’m giving the team a chance to win and I’m most likely getting guys out. That’s what I look at, not necessarily ERA. Strikeouts are nice, but if I can keep the team in the game, I’m doing my job as a starter.”

By simply surviving last year, Thornton more than accomplished that. He’s looking for more now, trusting in the work he put in over the winter to help ensure it happens.

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