Healthy at last, Trent Thornton firmly in mix for Blue Jays pitching staff

Toronto Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker spoke about what the team is focused on in spring training with their pitchers.

Trent Thornton was pitching through stuff for a while. It’s not unusual. Every MLB pitcher takes the mound managing some level of discomfort, whether it’s a bit of labrum inflammation or a blister or a ligament fraying away. For Thornton, it was bone spurs, which floated around in his elbow and didn’t feel great, but weren’t bothersome enough to keep him off a mound.

That is until he threw this pitch to Brandon Lowe in his third — and ultimately final — start of 2020:

You can see it in how he carries his arm after the pitch. Thornton was already having trouble fully extending and flexing his arm coming into the start, but after that pitch one of the bone spurs caught and locked it at about a 65-degree angle. He forced the spur back out and regained enough mobility to finish the inning 14 pitches later; but his arm locked up again when he returned to the dugout, which is where Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker found him painfully trying to wrench the bone back into a more comfortable position.

“He was like, ‘Hey, man, enough’s enough. We've got to figure this out,’” Thornton remembers. “I've always had a little piece in my arm that never bothered me for a long time. And I guess over the years of wear and tear, it just got to the point where I couldn't pitch through it anymore.”

The Blue Jays called it inflammation at first, but within a week Thornton was off to be assessed by Dr. James Andrews, who isn’t someone you visit when you’re only experiencing inflammation. A couple days later, Andrews arthroscopically harvested four loose pieces of bone from Thornton’s elbow — two on the smaller side; two the size of molars — and handed them to Thornton’s mother in a little cup.

“They were just hindering my ability to do what I’m capable of. It affected my velocity; it affected all my pitches and how they broke,” Thornton says. “It affected pretty much everything.”

This January, when he finally got back on a mound at Toronto’s player development complex in Dunedin, Fla., Thornton learned what it feels like to pitch unencumbered. His curveball and slider came out with more consistent shape and a sharpness he hadn’t seen in years. His changeup, a pitch he’s struggled to command throughout his career, was landing at the bottom of the zone more than ever. It’s funny what a pitcher can make the baseball do with the ability to fully extend his arm.

As he worked through multiple bullpen sessions over the last several weeks, Thornton’s velocity and fastball life progressively increased. Walker’s has been watching closely, and will continue to when Thornton throws one of the first live bullpens of camp on Monday.

“He definitely feels a lot better than he did last year, which is great. Ball seems to be coming out nicely; he’s spinning the ball really well,” Walker said. “We’re very excited about the way he feels.”

Out of sight and out of mind since his surgery, Thornton’s oft overlooked in discussions about how the Blue Jays might construct their pitching staff to begin the season. But he’s firmly in the mix. It’s easy to forget he led the team in innings pitched two years ago, spinning a few gems and weathering a few shellings in an up-and-down season that ultimately produced a respectable 1.9 fWAR. No one’s calling him an ace; but there’s always need for production like that on a big-league staff.

Now more than ever. The Blue Jays — all teams, really — are trying to build as much pitching depth as possible before embarking on a 162-game season in which the club will need to cover a 170 per cent innings increase from 2020’s 60-game campaign. Every arm helps and Thornton’s track record of both starting and relieving makes his all the more valuable for a club expected to utilize its pitching staff creatively, thinking of its pitchers more as interchangeable out-getters with dynamic workloads than traditional six-inning starters and one-inning relievers. For as little as he’s talked about, there’s a strong possibility Thornton’s on the opening day roster in some capacity being asked to get those outs.

Given his injury history, Toronto’s need for innings, and the likely fluidity of the club’s pitching staff, it’s easy to envision Thornton having a season — health allowing — in which he’s deployed in a variety of roles, ultimately logging somewhere north of 100 innings but south of 150. He could serve as one-half of a tandem starting duo with a left-hander like Steven Matz or Robbie Ray. He could throw bulk innings behind a right-hander, too, if the Blue Jays like the matchup. He could be utilized as a late-game weapon, as he was when he closed games for North Carolina in college. Or, if circumstances allow, he could always fill the role he’s hoping to and start games.

“I'd prefer to be a starter. I think I have what it takes to get deeper into games — finally being healthy and being able to actually show what I can do this year,” he says. “But I’ve been a reliever before. I've been a closer. I did all of that stuff in college. It's not new territory for me. Ultimately, I want to pitch in the big leagues. So, whatever the team needs me to do in order to win, I'll be glad to do that. But, obviously, I'd much, much rather be a starting pitcher.”

These things tend to sort themselves out over time, and with six weeks until opening day there’s plenty of it. The focus now for Thornton in his sessions with Walker and bullpen coach Matt Buschmann is improving the feel for his secondary stuff, dialling in his command, and honing a repertoire that’s at times expanded to as many as a half-dozen pitches.

The last time we saw him pitch consistently in 2019, Thornton’s 93-m.p.h. four-seam fastball typically set everything up. But as the season wore on and the pitch started getting hit, he began leaning more heavily on a two-seamer, which was a touch softer but moved more vertically. A sweeping, 80-m.p.h. slider was his go-to secondary offering most often; but there was a series of starts late in the season in which he tightened the pitch and firmed it up into a cutter, playing it off his fastball at 88-m.p.h.

A low-80’s split-changeup began 2019 in his repertoire, was shelved in the lab mid-season, and returned late in the year — particularly against left-handed hitting — after Thornton learned a new grip from Clay Buchholz. A big, 74-m.p.h. curveball came-and-went, too, as Thornton tried it sparingly in a couple early season starts, abandoned it for three months, then brought it back in September.

It was a lot. Staying on top of six pitches isn’t the easiest thing to do; some pitchers struggle to maintain two. So, this year Thornton’s narrowing his focus. He’ll enter the season leaning on his four-seamer, cutter, curveball and changeup, keeping the sinker and slider in his back pocket only to be used in an emergency.

Thornton’s blessed with exceptionally-high natural spin on just about everything he throws — the spin rates on his fastball and curveball were each within the top-15 per cent of MLB pitchers in 2019. Now he’s trying to learn how to use it to his advantage, tunnelling complementary pitches off of one another in certain quadrants of the strike zone in an effort to generate swing-and-miss and put hitters away quicker. Working with that condensed repertoire, Thornton’s trying to do more with less.

“His stuff is certainly major-league calibre. It’s just about fine tuning a couple of things,” Walker says. “Minimizing the arsenal is important. And the way we approach right-handed and left- handed hitters is something we've been working on. Really looking forward to getting him out there and getting him back in games soon. And looking forward to seeing what Trent has to offer.”

There’s no denying his eagerness. Thornton blew up Walker’s phone all winter, texting him about different ideas, different grips, different attack plans he wants to execute this season. More than anything, Thornton just likes to pitch; and when he can’t, he likes to think about pitching. That’s why he suffered through the elbow discomfort as long as he did, whipping mid-90’s fastballs with fragments of bone rattling around in his elbow. He doesn’t know how to stop.

But last season’s surgery forced him to. And in the time he was gone, the competition for innings on Toronto’s pitching staff grew more crowded. That’s the game. It moves on with or without you. But after spending September anxiously watching his teammates compete in the post-season from afar — “there was times I caught myself screaming at the TV,” he says — Thornton can’t wait to get moving with it again.

“I love the competition,” he says. “There’s a ton of guys in this locker room that are very good pitchers. And that's the good part about this team — there’s so many guys that can help the team win.

“You just can't take anything for granted. That’s my mindset coming into spring training. Just having that little chip on your shoulder. You’re going to have to prove yourself every year.”

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