Matt Thornton was the original Andrew Miller
|07.12.13 at 11:54 pm ET|
Does this sound familiar?
A 6-foot-7 power left-hander with huge stuff, a highly regarded first-round pick out of college, confronted desperate struggles at the outset of his pro career that nearly derailed it before it ever gained traction, walking an unsightly 5.0 batters per nine innings. But with a change of scenery (and role, moving from the rotation to the bullpen) came steps forward in the pitcher’s career, until he blossomed in his late-20s into one of the most dominant left-handed relievers in the game.
Thornton, a first-round pick of the Mariners in 1998, had high-90s stuff and a breaking ball with teeth but little ability to control its trajectory. After posting his 5.0 walks per nine innings in the minors, he did not reach the majors until he was 27; he spent two years in the Mariners bullpen in 2004-05, walking 6.7 per nine innings, thereby undoing most of the good of his 8.7 strikeouts per nine. And so, Seattle parted with him in a swap of first-round busts with the White Sox late in the spring of 2006.
But Thornton used his change of scenery as a springboard. Under White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper (and, eventually, while working with current Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves, formerly Chicago’s bullpen coach), Thornton became one of the most dominant left-handed relievers in baseball. From 2008-13, he’s posted a 3.03 ERA with 9.7 strikeouts per nine and just 2.7 walks per nine. When the Sox traded for Miller (and then, after non-tendering him, signed him to a minor league deal), some team officials cited Thornton as being close to a best-case scenario for Miller.
For his part, Miller, after his move to the bullpen in 2012, took a particular interest in studying Thornton — both his stuff and his career path.
“I watch pretty much every lefty that pitches and take some interest in it. But absolutely — he’s probably been, over the course of the last five or six years, probably about the best lefty out of the bullpen, or at least in the conversation, certainly stuff-wise. I certainly pay attention when a guy like him comes in,” Miller said of Thornton last year. “I would like to be in that same conversation. He throws hard. He has a good breaking ball. I think we have different style of mechanics, for sure, but he would be a good guy for me to watch if I was going to watch maybe how he approached some certain hitters. The fastball to the breaking ball is probably pretty similar in the way it works to certain hitters. I certainly pay a lot of attention to that.”
Miller discussed Thornton with former Red Sox teammate Scott Atchison, who was in the Mariners system at the same time as Thornton. There was a lesson in Thornton’s emergence as a dominant pitcher in his late-20s and early-30s.
“It took him a while,” noted Miller. “Everybody wants such instant gratification. I wish I had come out and been awesome right out of the gates. It hasn’t worked out that way, but there’s enough evidence that with persistence, if you keep working and are good enough . . . More often than not, you’re going to find guys who it did take a while and I think you have to remind yourself of that sometimes, remind yourself of the stories of guys who had to persevere for a little while and maybe took a little bit longer.”
That may be especially true of taller pitchers such as Thornton and Miller, who must learn to manage a number of moving parts in their deliveries.
“Sometimes it takes bigger guys — tall guys, long guys — maybe a little bit longer to figure out what works for them,” Atchison noted last year. “But they’ve both seemed to figure it out.”
Indeed, Miller seemed well on his way to following Thornton’s footsteps this year. But now, with season-ending foot surgery in the cards, the Sox will hope that Thornton can become some semblance of what Miller was in their bullpen.
Latest from Bleacher Report
- David Ortiz Discusses Retirement from Baseball, Time with Red Sox
- Jackie Bradley Jr. Is Now a Red Sox Star
- Big Papi Cementing His Legend with a Bang
- Ortiz Passes Banks, Mathews for 22nd Place on MLB's HR List
- Red Sox's High-Octane Offense Fueling Rise Back to Prominence
- Red Sox Score Double-Digit Runs for 4th Consecutive Game
- Red Sox 1st Team Since 1999 to Score 13+ Runs in 3 Straight
- Cup of Coffee: Espinoza, Ockimey lead Greenville, Haley rolls on
- Sam Travis out for season with torn ACL
- Cup of Coffee: Gunsolus, Ray power Greenville to win
- Cup of Coffee: Benintendi, Devers record multi-hit games
- Cup of Coffee: Almonte throws six no-hit innings
- Cup of Coffee: Owens, others struggle on mound
- Cup of Coffee: Espinoza dominates in mid-week matinee
- Cup of Coffee: Rodriguez fires seven strong innings in rehab start
- Cup of Coffee: Raudes strikes out eight over six scoreless frames
- Weekly Notes: Rodriguez to start tomorrow for Pawtucket