Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon

Toolshed: Pirates' Thomas primed for breakout

Raw right-hander's ascension will have to wait one more season
Tahnaj Thomas struck out 29.5 percent of the batters he faced for Rookie Advanced Bristol in 2019. (Michael Grennell)
November 6, 2020

Tahnaj Thomas raised his hand, and that made all the difference. Back in late 2016, the Bahamas native was assigned, through a coach back home, to help a Chicago-area team of fellow teenagers in a tournament that took place in Jupiter, Florida. As the new kid, the shortstop wasn't getting

Tahnaj Thomas raised his hand, and that made all the difference.

Back in late 2016, the Bahamas native was assigned, through a coach back home, to help a Chicago-area team of fellow teenagers in a tournament that took place in Jupiter, Florida. As the new kid, the shortstop wasn't getting any playing time until an opportunity arose.

"It was like, the seventh or eighth inning, and the manager came down and said, 'We need someone to close out the game,'" Thomas said. "And no one put their hand up to close. I was just like, 'I don't know, I can throw.' I went down to the bullpen, got loose and came into the game. After that, it was history."

The next chapter came when Cleveland signed Thomas for $200,000 that December. Now four years later, the 21-year-old right-handed pitcher -- now the No. 15 prospect in the Pirates system -- is on the brink of a breakout, whenever he can see action in official games again following an otherwise lost 2020 season.

If there were such a thing as a baseball scouting dictionary, the term "raw" could feature a portrait of Thomas next to its definition.

When the right-hander was first scouted by the Indians at that Jupiter tournament, he had thrown only a few times back home. When he did pitch, it was "strictly fastballs," he said. Flash forward to this past period of Sept. 20-Oct. 29, when Thomas worked out of Pirates instructional camp in Bradenton, Florida, and now the right-hander is focused on developing his breaking ball -- what he calls a "slurve" -- and his changeup in order to get the three-pitch arsenal that will keep him in a starting role as he ascends to the Majors. That fastball, by the way, was up to 97-99 mph in instructs, Thomas said.

That package of elite velocity and developing off-speed could have allowed Thomas to take off in prospect rankings and move higher up the Pittsburgh chain, likely starting at Class A West Virginia this spring. While most might see the season that could have been as a missed chance, Thomas takes another view.

"I'd say I just lost another opportunity to showcase myself in games," he said. "But honestly, I felt in 2020 since we did not have a season, I thought that it was an opportunity for me to learn myself and learn my body and really understand what I had to work on. Coming out of Spring Training, I felt really good. I felt pretty confident going into the year. I felt really healthy. But then in 2020, I felt since we did not have games, it really gave me the opportunity to break down some stuff mechanically and try to get myself in a better space to be more consistent and to be a better pitcher. I feel as if the opportunity presented itself and I took advantage of it."

It's worth remembering just how good Thomas was the last time he pitched in regular-season games. The 6-foot-4 hurler finished with a 3.17 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP with 59 strikeouts and only 14 walks over 48 1/3 innings for Rookie Advanced Bristol. His ERA, WHIP, 4.2 K/BB ratio and 29.5 percent strikeout rate all ranked in the top 10 among Appalachian League pitchers with at least 40 innings in 2019, and as good as those final numbers were, they proved especially promising down the stretch. Over his final six starts, he posted a 1.86 ERA with 33 K's over 29 frames.

That wasn't by accident. On July 19 -- just before that streak began -- in a start against Johnson City, Thomas allowed a second-inning home run to Cardinals first baseman Chandler Redmond. Frustrated by giving up a dinger in a game with first-half standings implications, Thomas utilized tunnel vision. On the other side: triple-digits for the first time in his career.

"After that homer, I don't know what it was, but it was a different feeling," he said. "My body felt like it wasn't there. I blocked out like all the noise in the stands because it was a pretty intense game. ... I blocked out all the fans and felt completely confident in myself to get those guys out. When I got into the locker room after my start, I remember [ Santiago Florez] came up to me like, 'Bro, you just threw 101.' I was like, no shot. No way. There's no possible way. And I saw it when he wrote it down. It was exciting. It was fun to see."

That uptick in velocity and performance coincided nicely with a shift in Thomas' thinking. After two seasons at the Dominican Summer League and Arizona League complexes and a November 2018 trade that sent him from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, it wasn't until just before the 2019 season that Thomas finally closed out part of his baseball life. He had to stop feeling like a shortstop.

"I wouldn't say it was like any given day, I can go back to the short, but I would say I still had some thoughts about being an infielder, throw like an infielder, stuff like that," he said. "Obviously, you still have to be athletic, and you have to move around like an infielder. But I felt like I was a shortstop but I was on the mound. I feel now the mentality change where it's like, I need to be the best pitcher I can be. Understand how to pitch better, how to pitch more, how to be more consistent. That's my mentality now."

That work continued into the offseason and the quarantine period. Thomas initially traveled back to the Bahamas following the closing of Spring Training and he threw to his brother in the street without an open facility in which to work. All the while, he was sending video back to Pirates pitching coaches keeping a close eye on his still-developing delivery. Around the beginning of August, Thomas moved that work stateside to Boca Raton, Florida, where he had more access to data-driven machines like Rapsodo that monitored the development of his stuff. But the foremost focus was getting down the mechanics, specifically about pitching out of the stretch to get the most of his raw arsenal.

"I would say we worked a lot on getting into my backside more and driving driving down the mound," Thomas said. "And that was our main focus during instructs too. I'm just getting into my back side and driving and being more efficient going towards home plate."

While at instructs, Thomas worked as a starter every five to six days but was limited to only two or three innings per outing since he hadn't been fully worked up during the summer. After being criticized for being too fastball-reliant in 2019, he paid attention to the movement of his breaking ball and developing confidence with his changeup. He has been experimenting with different grips on the latter and seems to have found some comfort in a two-seamer option that generates 7-8 mph separation from his heater.

The whole arsenal is something that could have been on full display in a normal 2020, one in which Thomas envisioned ending the season in the Florida State League. Climbing the ladder with improved stuff could have made the lanky right-hander that much better a prospect at a time when the Pirates can use as many of those as possible.

Pittsburgh finished the truncated Major League season at 19-41, the worst record in baseball. That means it earned the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 Draft, for which Vanderbilt hurler Kumar Rocker is the early heavy favorite to hear his name called first. The Bucs already have one piece of the future in place in third baseman/No. 2 prospect Ke'Bryan Hayes, but others like Nick Gonzales, Quinn Priester and Brennan Malone are a few years away. So is Thomas, of course.

That emphasis on the long-term future was a topic of conversation at instructs in Bradenton.

"We're in a rebuild mode," Thomas said. "I feel like it's been talked about, but everyone's on the same page with what we're what our focus is and what we're trying to accomplish. I feel as if everyone's open to feedback and open to what we're trying to do. I feel that that's what is helping our prospects and our players get better on a daily basis. Coming out of instructs, it was a little different. The approaches we took were different. I can't speak for everyone, but it seemed like everyone had a pretty good time, got some good work in and pointed us in the right direction."

With that work Thomas was able to achieve at the tail end of 2020, he might be a slightly different pitching prospect than the one Pirates fans last saw when he finished up with Bristol 14 months ago -- one with a more well-rounded repertoire and a more-grounded delivery. At least one thing is for sure as Thomas waits to resume his Minor League career. He sure is glad he rose his hand.

"I've had thoughts about what would have happened had I not done that," Thomas said. "But I mean, you gotta realize God always has a plan. Maybe this is what he has in store for me being a pitcher. So that's why I felt as if I needed to get out of that position player mentality and try to become the best pitcher I can be. Maybe one day, I can be a Major League pitcher for the Pirates."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.