Name: Tyler Thornburg
Notable 2011 Stats: 1.57 ERA, 2.82 FIP, 3 HRA, 28 BB, 76 K, 45% GB% in 68 2/3 IP with Wisconsin (A);
3.57 ERA, 3.32 FIP, 5 HRA, 33 BB, 84 K, 35% GB% in 68 IP with Brevard County (High-A);
2.57 ERA, 3.06 FIP, 8 HRA, 61 BB, 160 K, 40% GB% in 136 2/3 IP total
Why He’s This High: In his first full pro season, Thornburg breezed through both A-ball levels with dominant strikeout rates. He has the stuff to back up those sort of numbers, with a fastball, curveball, and changeup that are all at least average and flash plus. He throws all three pitches from a Tim Lincecum-esque delivery that gives him good plane to the plate in spite of his short stature.
Due to the deception in his delivery and his flyball tendencies, Thornburg has posted excellent BABIP numbers at each of his three minor league stops, and while it’s too early to say definitively, it’s quite possible that he will maintain that quality as he moves up. Despite his flyball tendencies, he hasn’t had home run problems yet. One could pin this on some relatively pitcher-friendly environments, but his good stuff and deception also make his pitches tough to square up.
Why He’s This Low: As a college draftee, Thornburg wasn’t young for A-ball; he turned 23 right at the end of the season. With that in mind, any flaws he showed become a bit more magnified in terms of his prospect status.
Chief among these is the relatively high walk rates. He walked 3.28 batters per nine innings in Low-A, and that jumped to 4.37 in High-A. Of course, his strikeout rate jumped as well, but nobody’s projecting him to strike out 11 batters per nine innings in the majors, so he’s going to need to cut the walks if he’s going to move toward the front of a rotation.
At his small size, Thornburg is going to have to prove he can stay durable. There aren’t many comparables for his delivery, which includes a Lincecum-esque hip turn and an arm slot that approaches Josh Collmenter territory, and we should remember that both Lincecum and Collmenter had significant questions when they first arrived in the majors. Many project Thornburg as more of a power closer, where he wouldn’t have to worry as much about durability or his control issues, and his strikeout ability and stuff would play up.
Conclusions: Thornburg has an impressive arsenal, but there seems to be a lot of pressure to move him to relief. I don’t think that pressure is entirely fair, but it still has to factor into his projection.
Even if he remains a starter, Thornburg needs to throw more strikes and prove he can handle 180+ inning workloads. He only threw 136 2/3 this year, although he’s getting in some extra work as a reliever in the Arizona Fall League.
Currently, he projects as an erratic but overall solid mid-rotation starter, a la a righthanded Gio Gonzalez. He has higher upside than that if he can dramatically cut his walks, but he could also be significantly less valuable if he either moves to relief or can’t handle a big workload as a starter.
In a Brewers system still regarded to be somewhat thin, however, Thornburg will likely get a longer look in the rotation than he might in systems with more pitching depth. That’s a point in his favor; however, Thornburg will need a big 2012 in the upper minors to erase doubts about his viability as a starter, particularly since he’s already 23 years old. He holds considerable intrigue, but can’t afford bumps in the road if he’s going to meet his upside. Still, there are certainly worse fates than becoming an impact power reliever, which seems to be his likely floor.
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