Seven years ago, the White Sox made a seemingly innocuous trade, swapping two players who didn't appear poised to live up to their first-round hype. Joe Borchard went to Seattle, Matt Thornton to Chicago. Mariners fans praised the move after years of frustration with the No. 22 overall pick in 1998 -- “Simply removing Thornton from the equation is a net positive,” wrote Dave Cameron.
With the White Sox, Thornton has made 472 appearances -- fourth-most by a pitcher in franchise history -- with a 3.25 ERA and 465 strikeouts. From 2008-2010, he was one of the best relievers in baseball. The Borchard-for-Thornton trade is often highlighted as one of the great successes of Kenny Williams’ tenure as White Sox GM.
But as Thornton has grown older -- he turned 36 last September -- he’s had to adapt not only to his age, but also to the familiarity seven years out of the same bullpen brings within a division.
Recently, that’s meant throwing more of his slider. In Thornton’s most dominant years, he went away from his slider, but in 2012, about one in every five pitches was a slider. That percentage represents the highest of his tenure with the White Sox.
“There were times where I had some guys set up, I've thrown them a lot of fastballs over the years, and I'd throw them three or four breaking balls in a row and get them out that way,” Thornton explained at SoxFest. “It's something to throw a wrinkle in there and put in their minds at different times, and different situations dictate it. When it's the right situation I'll use it. But other times, when the game goes on, I'm going to go with my best pitch, and that's always the fastball.”
Thornton’s still trying to perfect his slider -- “It was something I worked on it during spring training (in 2012), but I still wasn't happy with it,” he said -- but as his fastball loses a bit of zip, it’ll become an increasingly important pitch. Whereas a few years ago Thornton could count on throwing an upper-90’s fastball all year, now the reliever says that velocity “comes and goes.”
“Last year, toward the end I think the early workload of the season took a toll on me,” Thornton elaborated. “I thought I lost a little bit of my fastball at the end of the year because of the workload early on.”
Thornton appeared in over half of his team’s games in April and May, and his fastball velocity did drop to around 94 in September after sitting at at 95 miles per hour for the first five months of the season. With Jesse Crain missing nearly a month and Will Ohman’s ERA scraping 7, Thornton was the only veteran Robin Ventura had at his disposal for much of the early part of 2012.
So when September rolled around, it’s worth considering this: In three critical games against Detroit, manager Robin Ventura opted to use ineffective left-handers Francisco Liriano and Leyson Septimo out of the bullpen while Thornton didn’t pitch in that stretch.
Addison Reed and Nate Jones are no longer rookies, while Matt Lindstrom brings another veteran presence to the 2013 bullpen mix. Thornton and Crain return as does lefty Donnie Veal, who was lights-out in limited exposure last season.
If everything goes according to plan, Thornton won’t have to exhaust himself in April and May, and that could pay dividends if the Sox are in another September playoff race.