Memphis’ left-hander Connor Thomas got an early start to his All-Star break itinerary during the Redbirds’ series in Nashville last week.
After tossing five innings to help the Redbirds beat the Sounds 3-2 last Wednesday night – Thomas’ fifth victory of the season – the 24-year-old father of two daughters went right back to work.
“They’ve been here with me all week (in Nashville) – my wife has let me take every diaper duty I can. I’m more than willing to, (she’s) a trooper for me, I think changing a few diapers is the least I can do,” he said during a phone interview before the all-star break.
Thomas traded baby powder for the rosin bag on Friday night when he took the bump at AutoZone Park.
Thomas pitched four scoreless frames against Gwinnett but was chased when the Stripers touched him for a home run and two singles to open the fifth. He exited with Memphis ahead 5-2 and took a no-decision, as Gwinnett scored three runs in the eighth and won 7-6.
The Georgia native has enjoyed a steady 2022 campaign, particularly against left-handed batters.
Lefties are hitting for a scant .220 batting average with just nine extra bases hits and 39 strikeouts; Thomas’ WHIP against lefties is an excellent 0.87.
Most importantly for an organization that boasts one of MLB’s best defenses, Thomas has issued just 15 walks in 346 plate appearances, and he’s thrown six innings or more in six of his 14 starts.
An innings-eating arm that throws strikes and is effective against left-handed batters – those are traits that St. Louis will find attractive as autumn approaches.
The Cardinals’ selected Thomas in the fifth round of the 2019 MLB Draft and the Georgia Tech product made just 19 appearances split between State College, Peoria, and Springfield before reaching Triple-A Memphis last season.
Thomas’ first outing for the Redbirds on May 29, 2021 was baptism by fire.
The opposing line-up for Gwinnett featured former MLB all-stars’ Jason Kipnis and Jonathan Lucroy. He yielded two earned runs over five innings and retired Kipnis and Lucroy – a performance that Thomas says proved something to himself.
“It was awesome, it kind of game me that sense of you know what? I do belong here – they called me up and they see a future with me and obviously I just need to trust my stuff and trust in my ability because it’s getting these guys out,” he said.
“I’m going to continue trusting it and believe in myself.”
Thomas threw six innings of one-run ball and struck out 11 in a win at Norfolk on May 14th – a season-high for a pitcher that likes to pitch to contact.
He tossed 6 2/3 shutout innings against Charlotte on June 1, throwing 67 of 102 pitches for strikes and scattering three hits.
As more and more pitching prospects rely on velocity for outs, Thomas’ ability to command the strike zone is a competitive advantage.
“Seeing all these guys now-a-days throwing it so hard, it makes me feel like I’m setting myself apart by doing something that maybe not a lot of pitchers are doing,” he said.
“The way I pitch was successful for so many years, you know? I’m doing the same (thing) that all these other greats have done – obviously a little better than I’m doing it right now – but I’m still hoping to repeat the success they’ve had in their careers.”
“If I throw my 90-mph fastball down the middle, they’re going to hit it 500 feet,” he said. “Instead of doing that, let’s just focus on throwing stuff that moves and maybe getting outs in one or two pitches – make me last longer in ball games.”
“Yeah, I won’t strike out as many, I’ll still have games when I strike out 10 or 11 plus – like career-high games – but for the most part, I’m going to get guys out early and last six, seven, eight innings hopefully.”
Thomas grew up in rural Georgia and around age 10, he knew his passion was on the mound.
“My parents were like, well we’re going to start investing in pitching – if you really like pitching, we’ll keep spending money on it. I had fun because I was doing well, and I just never stopped going to lessons.”
Kevin Hopper, a submarine pitcher that pitched in the Atlanta Braves’ organization lived 20 minutes away and took Thomas under his wing.
The return on investment was high.
Thomas was an all-state pitcher at Tift County High School in 2016 and he was ranked the No. 9 left-hander in the prospect-rich state of Georgia. He was a first-team ACC selection in 2018 and the following year, he helped the Ramblin’ Wreck reach the 2019 College World Series regional in Atlanta.
Thomas spun a gem – he pitched 8 and 2/3 innings and allowed just one earned run against Auburn – but the Tigers’ scored four times in the ninth, including a walk-off three-run home run that ended his collegiate career.
“It was by far the most sour way a pitcher can go out – it really, really sucked, just not a better way to put it.”
Growth has continued in the Cardinals’ system, and Thomas ascended the minor-league ladder quickly. Along the way, he experiences moments that demonstrate how far he’s come.
During his freshman season at Georgia Tech in 2017 – as Thomas struggled to balance engineering classes with adapting to tougher competition on the diamond – he encountered Virginia slugger Adam Haseley.
Haseley hit for a .390 average and bashed 14 home runs for the Cavaliers in 2017 before the Phillies selected the left-handed power hitter with the 8th overall pick in the draft. Haseley went 1-for-2 with a walk and run scored against the Yellow Jackets’ southpaw when the two ACC rivals met in Atlanta.
But like so many lefty bats in Triple-A, Haseley can’t figure out Thomas in 2022. A .273 hitter with 10 home runs for Charlotte this season, Haseley is 0-for-5 with three strikeouts against Thomas.
Andy Carroll is a freelance sports writer living in the Ozarks with his wife and four great kids. He loves St. Louis, toasted ravioli and minor league baseball. You can follow him on Twitter @carroll_sgf and Instagram @andycarroll505