Before Connor Thomas made his Arizona Fall League debut and found success while playing with some of baseball’s top prospects, there came a point this past minor-league season when he knew he needed to make a change amid struggles while with Class AAA Memphis.
As the 24-year-old left-handed was searching for answer to combat right-handed hitters, Thomas thought back to a piece of advice former Cardinals pitching coach Mike Maddux gave to him back in Jupiter, Florida during spring training.
The advice from Maddux to Thomas: To develop a cutter.
Thomas worked on the pitch during the Memphis season, but hadn't used it in a live game. Now that's he's debuted in the fall league, the 24-year-old has posted a 1.59 ERA, a league-high 31 strikeouts in 22 2/3 innings, and, on Friday, was named to as an Arizona Fall League National League All-Star.
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“It definitely adds confidence to me, right?” Thomas said of the benefit of his new pitch. “It allows me to start finally getting some swings and misses whereas before, a lot of guys saw me as primarily a contact pitcher with low strikeout numbers. And so I mean, here I'm doing pretty well and getting a lot of swings and misses. I'm getting a lot of soft contact, still. And I'm showing that if hitters do put it in play, I get soft contact grounders. But for the most part, I'm getting a lot more swings and misses than I did during the season.”
The process for Thomas, who finished the Class AAA season with a 5.47 ERA and 1.57 WHIP, to develop his new cutter was one that took the course of the 2022 season.
He said he didn’t know how to throw a cutter prior to this season. He toyed with the pitch when he’d play catch, but never used it in a bullpen let alone in game with his sights set on it helping him eventually.
"So you're trying to obviously produce results to get a hopeful call up," he said. "And so most people would think that maybe developing a pitch during that time is not really the best idea. But I felt like at that point, I was kind of in dire need of something to get hitters off of my two-seam and slider."
When the minor-league calendar reached mid-July, he talked with Memphis pitching coach Dernier Orozco about the possibility of mixing in his cutter in bullpen session and Orozco agreed. Then, when it came to finding the right grip on his pitch and how to use it in games, a visit from a former Cardinals closer who is also one of the organization’s roving minor-league instructors added the finishing touches to the cutter.
“I kind of got to credit Jason Isringhausen when it comes to that,” Thomas said.
It was during a Memphis’ road trip to Nashville, the Brewers’ Class AAA affiliate, when Isringhausen talked with Thomas about implementing the cutter and finding the right mindset to have when throwing it.
“He (Isringhausen) just kind of told me (to) kind of offset (a) four-seam and just think fastball when I throw it," Thomas said. "And honestly, that's what I do now is just kind of offset a four-seam and think fastball, and it takes care of the rest. So I would say I give credit to, I guess two different phases of my cutter. The thinking about it and maybe developing it would be Maddux and Orozco and then the finishing the final product would be towards Isringhausen. Those three minds kind of led it to where it is now.”
So, how does that pitch complement Thomas’ repertoire?
“If you know Connor, you know what kind of pitcher he is” Isringhausen said in a recent phone interview. “He's kind of a sinker ball pitcher; keeps the ball on the ground. A lot of teams will load up right-handed hitters against him and everybody looks out over the plate. We talked to him about, you know, implementing a new little pitch to get it in on righties a little easier than trying to throw that sinker that starts off the plate and ends up on the inside corner.”
Although Thomas had a 51% groundball rate this past season, which was the sixth highest rate among minor-league pitchers with 130 more innings pitched, he had the 42nd lowest strikeouts rate (17.9%) among those same qualifying pitchers.
That has changed for Thomas since his arrival in Arizona.
One of Thomas’s most effective performances in the AFL came on Oct. 17 when he struck out 10 hitters in four innings on 76 pitches. The performance made Thomas the first pitcher in the AFL to strikeout 10 or more in a game since former Royals prospect Kyle Zimmer struck out 12 in a 2014 fall game.
19 of the total strikeouts Thomas has collected have come against right-handed batters giving him a 28% strikeout rate against righties. During the regular season, he struck out 15% of righties in the regular season and allowed a .328 when facing them and has kept them to a .246 average in the AFL.
“The cutter allows me to kind of give hitters another look. Another look at a different speed and a different spin,” Thomas said. “It gets them off of my two-seam, slider and it allows them to play up. Also, the cutter generates a lot of swings and misses, too. … And it just kind of really complements me. And I think it's kind of puts me to the next level.”
He followed up his double-digit strikeout game with seven strikeouts across five innings of one-run ball in an Oct. 24 start and, in his most recent start, struck out seven and allowed two runs in five innings on Monday.
“I think it's starting to work for him. He's striking some guys out,” Isringhausen said. “He's always been a high ground ball guy and being able to get strikeouts here and there just makes it that much easier for him.”
In the days following the end of the World Series, the Cardinals will need to make decisions with their 40-man roster. Thomas could be a part of those discussions since he is Rule 5 draft eligible heading into December. If the Cardinals choose to leave him off the 40-man roster, he will be unprotected from the Rule 5 draft.
His past five starts in the AFL have given him some momentum as those decisions need to be made while also garnering some recognition among some of baseball’s top prospects with his nod on the NL Fall Stars roster.
“I didn't have the best season in Memphis,” Thomas said prior to the Fall Stars roster announcement. “My numbers weren't really to my liking. And I think the change of scenery, change of pace out here has been welcomed for me. I think this has been the biggest thing. I love it out here. It's a great environment, a good group of guys. And it's truly been an honor to play out here. I'm really enjoying my time.”
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