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Matt Thornton was the original Andrew Miller

07.12.13 at 11:54 pm ET
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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.

The narrative paints a fairly clear picture of Andrew Miller. But it also aptly characterizes the man whom the Red Sox acquired to replace Miller, Matt Thornton.

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.

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