How Thompson became a strike-throwing machine

MINNEAPOLIS – During the final days of the 2022 season, Mason Thompson entered Davey Martinez’s office for the same kind of exit interview everyone on the Nationals roster was given before leaving for the winter.

It was a chance for Thompson to discuss what he felt he did well and what he did not do well in his first full big league season. And, more importantly, it was a chance for Martinez and his staff to tell Thompson what they believed he could do to get better.

The primary message they wanted to get across to the big reliever: Throw strike one, because things get a lot easier for him once he does.

“They broke down my numbers and said: ‘When you get ahead, you’re basically unhittable,’” Thompson recalled Sunday. “That was the main focus this offseason, just pounding the zone. For me, it’s produced a good result.”

That’s putting it mildly. After tossing 2 1/3 innings with one unearned run scoring on his watch and emerging as the winning pitcher in the Nationals’ 10-4 thumping of the Twins, Thompson finds himself the owner of some enviable season stats. His ERA is 1.15. His WHIP is 0.638. He has 13 strikeouts and only one walk.

And the biggest reason for that, Thompson and the Nats believe, has been his ability to get ahead in the count.

That’s kind of a universal refrain. What pitcher isn’t trying to throw first-pitch strikes? But it seems especially true in Thompson’s case, because the movement on his two primary pitches (sinker, slider) is all the tougher to hit once a batter is worried about striking out.

“His stuff is so good,” Martinez said. “He’s got a lot of movement on his fastball. And once he can get ahead and get strike one, it will relax him a little better so he can make that nasty pitch.”

The numbers clearly back up the sentiment. In Thompson’s career to date, opponents hit a healthy .323/.440/.521 when they start ahead in the count 1-0. That slash line plummets to a paltry .162/.210/.222 when they fall behind 0-1.

Thompson wasn’t great at getting ahead last season. He threw first-pitch strikes only 58 percent of the time, three points below the league average. He went to an 0-2 count only 19 percent of the time, well below the league average of 26.

So far this season, the 25-year-old has flipped the script in significant fashion. He’s now throwing first-pitch strikes 68 percent of the time, while getting into an 0-2 count 30 percent of the time.

Of course, it’s easy to say you need to throw strike one. It’s an entirely different thing to actually do it. So how has Thompson been able to put into practice what the coaching staff has been preaching?

“Not being afraid to miss over the plate,” he said. “At times, I try to be a little too fine with pitches, especially early in the count. I think later in the count, you can be a little more selective with where you’re trying to go. But early on, I’m throwing it over the white part of the plate. Make them hit it.

“It’s hard enough to hit. The best guys in the league are batting .300. Guys will get themselves out a lot of the time. If you get ahead and you’re in attack mode, and they feel like they’ve got to swing the bat, you’re going to put them in a defensive mindset and it’s going to allow you to have a lot of success.”

Though he insists he’s not necessarily doing this on purpose, the numbers do show Thompson has dialed back his velocity a bit, which may in turn lead to better command.

As a rookie in 2021, his sinker averaged 96.2 mph. Last season, it went down slightly to 95.8 mph. This season, the decrease is more significant, down to an average of 94.2 mph. That hasn’t diminished his success, though. It has increased it.

“Right now, I’m not really worried about what (the radar gun) says. I could still go out there and throw 97-98. But for me right now, the results are there. The ball’s moving the way I want it to. For me, that’s all that really matters.”

Thompson’s overall strike percentage so far is a whopping 70 percent, and that’s allowing him to take advantage of his other notable skill: Pitching more than one inning at a time.

He has recorded more than three outs in six of his nine appearances so far. He’s completed two full innings in five of them. And he’s reached a third inning of relief twice already, including Saturday’s workhorse outing in which he threw 27-of-35 pitches for strikes while facing 10 Minnesota batters in total.

A starter his first four minor league seasons in the Padres organization, Thompson is no stranger to pitching multiple innings at a time. That experience has helped him embrace this new role in the Nationals bullpen.

“The ability to have that mindset, knowing I’m going to go multiple, I can pound the strike zone and get ahead,” he said. “That’s where throwing strikes comes into play. Because the fewer pitches I can throw, the better I’m going to feel that second inning when I run out there. That’s been big for me.”

Given how well Thompson has pitched, Martinez might be tempted to start holding him for late-inning work. Then again, the big right-hander is carving out a pretty impressive and important niche in his current role. Maybe it’s best to just embrace it and let him make the most of it.

“I know I can pitch in multiple roles,” he said. “Whatever they need me to do is what I’m going to do.”

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