Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Getting to Know Astros/JetHawks RHP Andrew Thome

When I talked with then Quad Cities RHP Andrew Thome last week pre-game in Cedar Rapids, the first thing I did was to ask him to critique my assessment of him from the 2016 Houston Farm System Handbook:
Andrew Thome was Baseball America's Top 500 highest ranked player coming out of North Dakota. As a matter of fact, he was the only player from North Dakota making the Top 500 list. The draft came and went without Thome's name being called, but the Astros soon remedied that and signed him as a non-drafted free agent. That turned out to be a very good move as Thome had an excellent freshman season with Greeneville, leading to his end of season promotion to Quad Cities.
Thome's repertoire consists of a fastball that hovers around 90 and touches 93 with good sink to it, a slider and a changeup. He's a strike-thrower who pitches to contact and generates a ton of groundball outs. His 2.42 GO/AO was one of the highest in the Astros system (in 2015). His command is impressive; he allowed only two walks in 35 innings. Thome has the polish to start his season with the Low A Quad Cities team.
Thome pronounced that narrative to be on the money except that my estimate of the upper reaches of his fastball might be a tad bit generous. Thome then elaborated for me, "I'm primarily a sinkerballer. That's kind of my bread and butter. The sinker and changeup play well off of each other so those are my two go-to pitches. The slider is not new; I've always thrown one, but it's a different version of the slider that I used to throw ... a little bit harder, a little tighter. It's been generating some contact. I'm trying to get more swings and misses with it, but I'll take soft contact all day long. On top of that, [Quad Cities Pitching Coach Chris] Holt also introduced a cutter to me." As Thome explained it, the cutter runs in on lefties and jams them up, giving him an extra weapon against lefty hitters.

Andrew Thome - May 2016
Photo by Jayne Hansen

In giving a scouting report on himself, Thome said, "I would say throwing strikes is something I've always prided myself on. Walk totals are usually typically low; I think that's the key to pitching well." He also prides himself on his even-keeled competitive nature on the mound. "There's no situation too big, too small, attacking every hitter in every outing with the same mentality and focus, whether things are going your way or not going your way." Thome also threw in an "OK frame" as an asset and thanked his parents for that.

As far as what Thome thinks he could improve on, he focused on that cutter. "I think throwing that cutter for strikes and with good velocity will help elevate my game just because I've always struggled against left-handed hitters. Usually when a righty gets in the box, I feel a lot more comfortable. Now if I can get that cutter working that way, it will be the same for both sides." Thome has had mostly good results with the cutter, but needs to find a little more consistency.

And that is the other thing that Thome is working on ... consistency. Thome said, "That's what they tell us is the difference between being a major leaguer and an A-baller or a AA guy is that consistency to bring that pitch or repertoire out every single day and throw repeatedly well."

And according to Quad Cities Pitching Coach Holt, Thome is well on his way to that goal of consistency, "He comes in and he's the same guy every time out. That's the number one thing. He'll come out ... he always seems to have really good stuff. He always pounds the zone. He is working on things developmentally right now to put his game together, but does it. (He) takes it right into the game and attacks with everything he's got. He's an aggressive guy with a strong mentality and work ethic that's second to none also," said Holt.

As Thome and I talked, we got a bit off on a tangent on something near and dear to my heart and something that Thome has done an excellent job with so far this season ... stranding inherited runners. Thome said, "That's another thing that I really do like to take pride in because I've never been a bullpen arm before. I was always a starter ... high school, college, even last year I started in Greeneville. So not being out of the bullpen, one thing that I always used to hate was when a guy comes in with bases loaded, guy on first and second, whatever, and (gives up) walk, sac fly, a passed ball or something and there are two of your runs that score, but (the reliever) doesn't have to worry about it. And so I try to focus twice as hard to make sure those runs are left on base." And Thome has done just that, of 13 runners inherited so far this season, only one has come across home plate.

With the success that Thome has had since signed by the Astros, I had to ask why he thought he wasn't drafted. His response was disarmingly candid, "I didn't pitch that good in college to be honest. I always thought I had the stuff to make it. I was always just a few outings away from taking that jump."

I had never looked at Thome's college stats so that self-assessment surprised me, particularly considering how well he's done since he came into the Astros organization. So I asked him what was different for him now. "North Dakota is kind of an odd place in that we don't get to train in the offseason really. We had just an indoor gym to throw in. I guess that (puts) you behind the 8-ball. On top of that, we played a lot of terrible weather games and we traveled (extensively). That's tough to come back from. There were a lot of games where we'd throw and throw. I'd get my pitch count up to 120, 130 range. And before you know it, there are guys on first and second ... give up a home run, a double in the gap and those runs come around to score. All of those things pieced together, along with being way up in North Dakota. You can slip through the cracks pretty easily," said Thome.

Thome continued, "I'm just fortunate to be here. I got that phone call from the area scout and (when he said), 'We've got a spot for you if you want to come,' I was like, 'I've been waiting for you!' If it lasts two weeks or it lasts 15 years, I'm doing it. I've got a chip on my shoulder a little bit too. When you go undrafted like that, you understand that they didn't want you. It's a little more motivation, not that you need any more."

One of my go-to questions when I interview pitchers (as you will all know if you've been reading my interviews for any time) is to ask who in the Astros system has a pitch that they would like to steal. I occasionally learn something new from the answers as was the case with Thome. In addition to picking (very understandably) Chris Devenski's wow-worthy changeup, Thome also cited a less well known Astros farmhand, "As far as a fastball goes, I don't know if you've had a chance to follow Guzman ... he's down in extended Spring Training right now ... but he just hit 104 the other day down in Spring Training. I think if I could steal one, that might be it. He's consistently (around) 99 to 101." I was too surprised by this to ask Thome for details, but I am assuming that Guzman would be Jorge Guzman, a 20-year old Dominican who pitched his first season with the Astros in 2015.

Thome's answer as to which Astros player he would least like to face in the batter's box was less surprising, "Nick Tanielu. I faced him a couple times in Spring Training. I'm throwing pitches that (I think are) for sure strikeout pitches and he'd foul it off and he'd foul it off and he'd foul it off, and then I'd throw a pitch and leave it kind of middle and he'd put it in the gap. I didn't get a chance to face [Alex] Bregman, [Jose] Altuve, [Carlos] Correa, those guys, but as far as guys I've faced, he was the hardest guy to throw to by far in Spring Training."

When it comes to Astros players he likes to have behind him in the field when he pitches, Thome cited SS Osvaldo Duarte for his ability to make a play in the hole and IF Antonio Nunez for his rocket of an arm. But one player really stands out for Thome, "When the ball gets in [3B] Bobby Wernes's hands, it's pretty much a sure thing that he's going to throw him out at first base. He's silky in everything that he does, has range. He's pretty good at calming us down too. He's a vocal leader in the infield. He's a mainstay. Never too high. Never too low. Always kind of consistent which is a great teammate trait. And he makes the plays." But in the end, Thome "would take any one of these guys just because they're all here for a reason."

As far as something most people might not know about him, he mentioned his musical ability. "I used to play music. Up until my senior year, I played trumpet and piano. I always played instruments growing up. My Mom and Dad were key on the musical aspect of child's growth. I got pretty good at piano. I played it like 14 years. I could probably still pick it up and play it. But I can't sing. Just play the piano and let somebody else sing."

Thome was enjoying playing in Cedar Rapids at a field the Minnesota native played at in travel tournaments back in the day. Plus the fact that the Kernels are a Twins affiliate was fun for him as well. And I enjoyed getting to know Thome a little bit better. He is smart, extremely well-spoken, confident and exemplifies the "Minnesota nice" meme.

I'm glad I had the opportunity to talk to him as only three days after our interview Thome was promoted to Lancaster. But the promotion was not a huge surprise. For the season so far, Thome is 3-1 with four saves, a 1.56 ERA, a 0.856 WHIP and has walked only five batters while striking out 23 in his 14 appearances (34.2 IP). And to think, 30 teams took a pass on him in the draft.

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Thank you for your time, Andrew, and best of luck as the season continues. I'll see you again soon in California!

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