Take a look at the White Sox Top 30 prospect list and you won’t find Zach Thompson’s name anywhere.
If he had continued on his previous path, you might not have found Thompson’s name in the White Sox organization for much longer.
But then came a flight home to Texas in the summer of 2017. At 30,000 feet in the air, Thompson’s life and baseball career took a turn he wasn’t expecting.
“Honestly, without sounding really weird, I kind of had a sign from God and he told me, ‘You’ve got to trust me through this process,’” Thompson said on the White Sox Talk Podcast.
Drafted out of UT-Arlington in the 5th round by the White Sox in 2014, the 6-foot-7 behemoth of a pitcher had struggled to match the enormous size he brought to the mound.
Midway through that 2017 season, Thompson at 23 years old, was 1-7 with a 5.52 ERA at Winston-Salem. Something had to change. Something had to give. Turns out it was Thompson. The White Sox asked him to become a reliever. It was basically bullpen or bust.
“I was devastated a little bit. I had been a starter my whole life,” Thompson said who was internally fighting his baseball fate.
Flying home that day for the All-Star break, that’s when he says the message arrived.
“It just kind of happened. I was just sitting there listening to music and there it was. I felt something inside. This is definitely not me, this isn’t my thinking or anything. This was him saying trust me,” Thompson explained. “I’ve been raised a Christian my whole life so it wasn’t surprising to me. It was cool to see that there was something else that was going on and to go from struggling so bad last year to this process I was still struggling in, and all of sudden it clicked. I was like, there’s a reason that this happened.”
Thompson didn’t immediately become Mariano Rivera. There would be growing pains along the way. He says it took around 14 appearances for him to find that bulldog inside him that used to growl when he took the mound.
“It’s a not caring mentality. Whoever’s in the box, it’s staring them down and it’s like, I’m winning this and you’re going home a loser,” Thompson said.
Off the field, he’s a gentle giant. One of the nicest guys you’ll meet.
On the field, it’s a whole different story.
“You’re not getting nice Zach on the mound. Once the tip of the cap is done, my niceness is done,” Thompson said. “If you get a hit, great, but it’s almost like ticking me off on the inside. You got me this time, but next time you’re not even touching the ball. I’m going to dominate you this next time up. That mentality was still in my head. This bulldog nature of how I grew up and that’s what (the White Sox) drafted me for.”
In 2018, that bulldog was on full display. Pitching for Class A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham, Thompson combined to go 6-1 with a 1.55 ERA with 76 strikeouts in 75 innings. The White Sox wanted to see more. They chose him to pitch in the Arizona Fall League, and he continued where he left off, posting a 2.70 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 13.1 innings, consistently fooling some of the best prospects in baseball. His fastball sits in the mid to high 90’s. He also has a cutter, a big curveball and change-up. When he’s able to command the zone, he can dominate, especially now as a reliever.
“Instead of thinking in the back of my mind, I’ve got 6 innings I have to face these guys three times today, what did I do the last at-bat? It’s like, I’m only going to face this guy once. If I face him another day, who cares? That’s another day, but right now I can throw everything I got. It allows me to mix every pitch compared to ‘I don’t want to throw him this pitch because I want to set him for that in the next at-bat.’ As a reliever, you can just go. I can throw four curveballs in a row if I wanted to,” Thompson said.
Ironically, the one downside to Thompson’s breakthrough season is that the White Sox might end up losing him in next month's Rule 5 Draft which occurs on the final day of the MLB Winter Meetings. Players that signed at 19 or older and have four seasons of professional experience are eligible for the Rule 5 Draft if they’re not added to the 40-man roster. Tuesday, the White Sox added pitchers Dylan Cease, Jordan Stephens, Kodi Medeiros and catcher Seby Zavala to their 40-man, leaving Thompson exposed to the Rule 5. A team that selects a player in the draft has to keep him on their 25-man roster all season. Since Thompson has never played above Double A, most teams aren’t willing to force a reliever like him onto their 25-man club. However, a rebuilding team in need of an intriguing arm like Thompson's could take the risk and select him.
Not too long ago, it was the White Sox who were scouring the Rule 5 Draft looking for bargains, like Dylan Covey and Adrian Nieto. Now, the White Sox are potentially at risk of losing some of the depth they’ve accumulated if someone chooses Thompson.
Whatever happens, the right-hander is hoping to reach the majors at some point in 2019.
“The thought has gone through my mind, and with the Fall League, it kind of showed me what (the White Sox) think about me,” Thompson said. “I’d like to hopefully go into spring training, have a successfull spring, whether I’m breaking with the club or not and later in the year, I want to have that mentality of I’m going to take a spot on the big league roster and I’m going to succeed in that spot, whether that’s spring training, September, 2020 whatever it is, that’s still my mentality everyday.”
A couple years ago, Thompson probably would have skyrocketed into the White Sox top 30 prospect list with the season he just completed. But with so much talent ahead of him, he quietly sits under the radar--maybe not for long.
“A lot of people like to focus on the prospect list. So in that sense I’m under the radar, but I’d like to think with the Fall League I’ve kind of made a name for myself,” Thompson said. “I still think I’m under the radar a little bit. Hopefully I can be over the radar sometime soon. Whether I am or not, I want to help the team out.”
You can learn more about Thompson, including why he likes to watch videos of open heart surgeries in the clubhouse to pass the time on the White Sox Talk Podcast. Yeah, he’s pretty smart, too.
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