Before his exceptional spring training debut, Connor Thomas discusses what he has learned in his time so far as a St. Louis Cardinal.
This offseason, a new name made its way onto MLB.com’s top-30 prospects list for the St. Louis Cardinals: Connor Thomas. A left-handed starter out of Georgia Tech, Thomas is the next college starter excelling in the Cardinals’ system. A fifth round draft pick in 2019, Thomas has already made it to Triple-A. In an impressive first season at Memphis, he went 6-4, posting a 3.39 ERA in 101.2 innings.
His first look this spring came on Monday, where Thomas pitched a scoreless inning, striking out two of the three batters he faced. I was fortunate enough to speak with him before that exceptional spring training debut, discussing his path through the organization and what he has learned in his time as a St. Louis Cardinal.
Some responses were edited for clarity.
First, for those that haven’t seen you play, how would you describe your game?
I’m absolutely a groundball pitcher. I think I was top-5 in the minors last year in groundball rate. I really just go after them, throw it after them. My stuff moves enough. When I’m on, I don’t see myself getting hit around the yard very often. It’s a lot of ground balls to my infielders and I let them make plays.
You were a fifth round draft pick in 2019. What was that experience like? What did you know about the Cardinals?
I didn’t know much about the Cardinals, other than what most people know about them: they’re blue bloods, they have a rich tradition of winning and winning in the postseason. They’re a known team in most households.
As soon as I got drafted, I’m being told by my peers around me that they do a good job developing college pitchers and getting them ready for major league baseball. I was like, “Well, that sounds like it’s right up my alley.”
Looking back at the pitcher I’ve turned into now from then, I’m pretty different in my eyes. From how I pitch, how I approach games, the [Cardinals] fit the bill from that regard too. They really prepared me to be the best version of me and give me as many resources as possible to become the best version of who I want to be.
You mentioned that you’ve changed as a pitcher through your time in the organization. How have you grown and developed?
Yeah, so if you look at me just off the street and how I pitch, you might not see much of a difference. The mechanics are the same, and in theory I pitch the same way. It’s just the way I go about it.
In college, all I had was three pitches. At the time I was throwing a fastball, changeup, and a slider. Now I have four true pitches that do four different things. I have a sinker now, and a four-seam fastball. I have the changeup, and then the slider is still my bread and butter. And they all do different things – my two-seam runs and sinks, my changeup just drops off the table. My four-seam is straight and has a purpose. I want to make sure I locate it well. And then my slider has always been my best pitch. I have that in my back pocket to throw when I need to.
Is there anyone in particular that you’ve worked with in the organization?
There’s not really anyone in particular. Each pitching coach at each level has brought something different to the table that I’ve learned from them and been able to use in my arsenal. Like when I first got drafted, the M.O. from all of these guys was to throw strikes and be competitive with every pitch. I took that with me, and then AA, it was competing and making sure you weren’t falling behind counts- trying to always be in plus counts, like 0-1, 0-2. And then AAA, it was OK, we’re facing major league caliber hitters. How do we sequence, when do we throw each pitch, what not to throw in different counts. Really learning how to pitch and how to be a professional. So there hasn’t been one guy, but the organization in general has been really helpful for me.
Last year you started in AA but moved quickly up to AAA-Memphis. How was that transition?
Yeah, last year was a pretty good year, but there are always areas for improvement for a guy in my field of work. Started the year in AA, and the talent and caliber of guys there was unmatched. I believe the caliber of guys there was just as good if not better than AAA, but the guys in AAA just do it more consistently. My first month there, I’m facing some of the top prospects for each organization, some of those guys made their debuts last year. They were good hitters. But the difference between them and the hitters at the AAA level was just being able to capitalize more on mistake pitches. At every level you can get away with pitches and that number lessens as you go up. It’s just that difference of a little more pop, they’re more consistent, and they’re more trained to hit their pitch better.
Ok switching gears a little. You haven’t hit much in your career, so what are your thoughts on the universal DH? Could you pick up a bat in a pinch?
Well, I can’t lie. When the news broke I did feel a little flutter in my heart that I didn’t have to step into the box against a guy throwing 98 now. I’m absolutely excited about that. My at-bats, most pitchers at-bats, were kind of just washes anyway. They’re up there to take, if they swing it’s mostly rollovers. I’m kinda happy to see it gone. Not only do I not have to do it now, but I get to face a lot of one-through-nine, true hitters, and that challenges me a little more.
Being a Georgia guy, have you gotten to talk to Adam Wainwright yet?
It’s funny you mention Wainwright. I just recently found out he was a Georgia boy when I got to the Cardinals. This spring is the first time I’ve gotten to really talk to him and see him in person. Hopefully over the course of spring training I’ll get to talk to him and pick his brain a little bit. He’s definitely a guy I want to seek out.
Are there any of your teammates or peers that St. Louis Cardinal fans should know about? Someone we might not have heard much about?
A guy that stands out to me is Jake Walsh. Just got added to the 40-man to be protected from the Rule 5 last year. His fastball he can run it up to 99-100, his curveball is one of the best in the organization. There wasn’t a time last year when he was healthy that he was not dominant. He’s got an electricity about him, and I think from AAA to the majors, he’s going to make a real impact for us this year and be one of those breakout guys.
Lastly, is there anything you’re working on this spring or are there any goals you have for this season?
Yeah, I would say two-seam command, in general. Last year I struggled when I would get tired, I would lose the feel for it. Being consistent from inning one, to inning six, seven, eight – hopefully – and just pounding the zone with that pitch. Same deal with the slider. Just being consistent and throwing it where I want to, not just flipping it up there and hoping it works. All my pitches do what they’re supposed to do, just making it go where I want to go nine times out of ten.