Thursday, June 28, 2018

Getting to Know Astros/Grizzlies RHP Trent Thornton

I first crossed paths with Fresno Grizzlies RHP Trent Thornton when he was playing in High A Lancaster in June 2016. I didn't have the opportunity to talk with him during that trip, but I figured that I would run into him again sooner rather than later. Little did I know that it would take two more years before I would finally have the chance to get to know him a little bit better.

Trent Thornton - June 2018
Photo by Jayne Hansen

Thornton has flown somewhat under the radar since he was drafted in the 5th round in 2015 out of the University of North Carolina, but has flirted with Astros top 30 prospect lists from time to time. His 2017 season with his first taste of AAA was a mixed bag, but he is working to put those struggles behind him in 2018. Thus far this season, Thornton has a 3.01 ERA and a 1.005 WHIP in 13 games (12 starts), improving to a 2.33 ERA and 0.926 WHIP in his four starts in June.

I was in attendance for his June 16th start in which he took a no-hitter seven and two-thirds innings against Round Rock, ultimately allowing one hit over eight innings. I asked him when he realized that he had a no-hitter going. Thornton said, "It's in the back of your mind the whole time, but it's not something you openly talk about. When I come in and sit in the dugout, people don't normally really talk to me because I'm kind of in my own zone. After I got through the seventh, I was like kind of thinking a little bit more about it, getting pretty close."

Thornton continued, "Two outs in the 8th and their catcher had just popped out and he ran behind the mound and said, 'Man, you're locked in. You're dominant tonight. Good luck.' And the next batter, I get 0-2 and leave a breaking ball up, ground ball through the hole and that was that. I'm not going to say he jinxed me, but luck kind of ran out there. It was fun because I started getting a little goose bumps on the mound, a little adrenaline, because it was four outs away and that's the closest I've been since (my freshman year in college). That was a lot of fun. Wish I could have finished the job, but I'm just happy our team won."

As Thornton walked off the mound that night, I noticed him venting some of the frustration into his glove. "Yeah, I wasn't too happy just because the guy was 0-2 and it's so easy to make a better pitch than what I did. I left a breaking ball right down the middle and I paid for it." As a consolation prize, Thornton did earn the Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Week honors for that week however.

Thornton credits the great defense behind him with helping him get deep into the no-hit bid. "I had some tremendous defense behind me and a little bit of luck. You've got to have a little bit of both," said Thornton. In particular, Thornton thanked newly promoted teammate Myles Straw for a couple of great centerfield catches that helped him out. "That's the first time I'd ever played with him on a team. That guy, he can do it all. He can hit. He can throw. He plays hard every single time and as a pitcher, you can't ask a guy to do anymore than that."

Grizzlies Pitching Coach Dyar Miller credits Thornton's improvement in 2018 more to his ability to make mental adjustments, putting both the good and bad behind him and moving on to the next pitch and the next game, than any physical adjustment. Thornton agreed that he has made strides in his mental game, "For me, last year it was more of a focus and execution thing where I never really had a problem throwing strikes or commanding my pitches. It was just whether it was a quality strike or a quality ball. And for this year, Fed (Grizzlies Catcher Tim Federowicz) has really helped me out a lot with the focus of executing each pitch no matter the count, no matter the hitter. I've been able to be a little more consistent with that which has helped my success a little bit this year."

Grizzlies skipper Rodney Linares credits Thornton's improvement to something else, "He's pitching better after I gave him that haircut!" Linares thought Thornton looked just a little too straight-laced earlier this season (see the tweet below) and decided, "We had to do something!"
All kidding aside, the first thing you notice about Thornton when he is on the mound is not his haircut. It's his leg kick.

Trent Thornton - June 2018
Photo by Jayne Hansen

Of the leg kick, Thornton told me, "I've always done that my whole entire life. It's really helped with my rhythm and timing of everything and adds a little deceptiveness. For probably about a half a season last year, I kind of took it away and had a very generic leg lift and I saw that it messed up my timing and rhythm and my stuff wasn't quite as sharp. Towards the end, probably the last third, of the season, I started messing around with it in the bullpen again and Dyar was like, 'Man, your stuff looks really good. Stick with that.' And I basically went back to my old ways and it's been working again for me."

Miller agreed that Thornton has improved since re-committing to the high leg kick, "I think it's just a matter of rhythm and timing. Everybody is unique. He's unique." Of his overall delivery, Miller said, "I'm sure some coaches and scouts look at him and say that's the worst arm action of anybody I've ever seen. And it is a typical bad arm action. But he's like double-jointed. He's completely different. You can't put him in a normal category. He's very flexible. So that's why his arm goes way back and as far as I know, he's never had any injuries, never missed a start. He's been pretty solid. He's a little different bird with his physical make-up and mentality. I think he's going to get a chance to pitch in the big leagues."

I looked back at Thornton's career starts and it appears that he may have missed one start two years ago, but he has indeed managed to stay healthy despite a delivery that many early scouting reports found awkward and high effort. "I've always prided myself on flexibility. I stretch all the time and take pride in being able to move my body in ways that most people can't. It's just kind of my own individual thing that helps me be me," said Thornton.

The most surprising thing I learned about Thornton is that, unlike so many other baseball players I know, he is most decidedly NOT addicted to video games. "Actually, I don't play video games at all. I've always been an outside guy, growing up, playing everything with my buddies and my dad -- baseball, basketball, football, golf. I love fishing, frisbee golf. I definitely think I'm more of an outside type person. I don't really like playing video games that much." Aside from that, Thornton is very close with his family, including two younger sisters, back in Charlotte, North Carolina. Thornton was able to show off for his parents whose visit to see him corresponded with his no-hit bid, making their visit even more special for all of them.

As far as what has changed most for him in the four years since he was drafted, he said, "Baseball-wise, just the knowledge of the game, being able to play with some older guys that have so much to provide you and knowledge to give you. (That's) really helped me in the sense of becoming better each day even if it's something little like this year in my first big league spring training. I didn't even have to talk to some of the veteran guys. I could just overhear what they were saying which was so beneficial for me."

Thornton left me with some final words, "It's been a fun ride so far and hopefully it's just beginning." Considering the depth of the Astros system, Thornton's ride may still have a few twists and turns ahead, but everything that makes him unique points to that ride being far from over.

Thank you for your time, Trent, and best of luck as your career continues to unfold.

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