Toronto Blue Jays rookie, Trent Thornton, made his MLB debut and put on a quality Statcast performance
It’s not often that I write two consecutive posts about one player. It’s similarly not often that Jays From the Couch has posts on the same player on consecutive days. But that speaks to just how good Trent Thornton pitched in his Major League and Blue Jays debut on Sunday.
Thornton’s excellent start shines through in stats of all types. Zero earned runs over five innings. Eight strikeouts (a Blue Jays record for a starter making their MLB debut) against zero walks. Only two hits allowed, both singles. And, as the post’s title suggests, Thornton’s quality was also very evident in his Statcast numbers.
Let’s start with what he was throwing. His most-discussed strengths are a fastball and curveball that each have a very high spin rate. A high spin rate fastball spins against gravity, staying up longer than a low spin rate fastball and giving batters the perception that the fastball is rising. A high spin rate curveball does the opposite, spinning into gravity, suddenly crashing to earth just as it gets to home plate.
While preparing their scouting evaluations, FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel clocked Thornton’s fastball spin rate at 2500 rpm and his curveball spine rate at 3100 rpm. In his MLB debut, Thornton’s fastball averaged a spin rate of 2398 rpm (39 pitches), while his curveball averaged a spin rate of 3053 rpm (23 pitches), each only slightly under his FanGraphs’ marks.
These spin rates compare favourably to other MLB starters so far this season. Through Sunday’s games, 69 starters have thrown their four-seamer at least 25 times. Thornton’s average four-seamer spin rate ranks 16th in this group. 40 starters have thrown their curveball at least 10 times. Thornton’s average curveball spin rate is the highest in this group. Coincidentally, second on the list is Aaron Sanchez (2966 rpm). If we extend our range back to Opening Day 2018, only three starting pitchers (Garrett Richards, Seth Lugo and Chris Stratton) averaged a higher curveball spin rate than Thornton. It’s early days, but that is a special weapon he’s got.
Thornton also stands out in terms of the contact he’s given up. So far this season, there have been 108 starts made. Thornton’s .269 xwOBA on batted balls ranks 17th-best in this group, capturing the limited contact quality of the batted balls he gave up. Similarly, his xBA on batted balls (.219, 14th-best) suggests that batters struggled to generate any kind of base-hit contact against him.
His strong performance stands out further when we look at his overall xwOBA, which incorporates his eight strikeouts and zero walks, in addition to the contact quality he allowed. His .142 xwOBA is the second-best mark produced in a start this season, while his .116 xBA (which doesn’t give him credit for not walking a batter) is the sixth-best mark of the season.
Going back to Opening Day 2018, pitchers have made 4,817 starts through Sunday’s games (min. 10 batters faced, to avoid including openers). Thornton’s xwOBA ranks an extraordinary 40th-best (99th percentile), while his xBA ranks a very strong 99th-best (98th percentile).
Lots of strikeouts, no walks and very little effective contact: the best-case scenario for a pitcher making their big-league debut. Obviously, facing the Tigers helps. And, as this is only game one of his MLB career, Thornton can expect plenty of ups and downs ahead of him. Nevertheless, this is a strong foundation from which to build upon. A great debut for a young pitcher and a very positive sign for a team using 2019 to figure out what it’s rotation will look like when it eventually is a contender.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.