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Ryan Thompson may have a specialized role in 2021

What makes Thompson a unique member of the Rays bullpen?

MLB: ALDS-New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan Thompson’s first season in the majors was certainly a memorable one. If his spot on the opening day roster was ever in question, recent injuries secured Thompson’s spot on the 26-man.

Originally a non-roster invitee, Thompson made the team and split the 2020 season between the major league team and the alternate training site. In 25 games last season, Thompson recorded a 4.44 ERA, struck out 7.9 per 9 innings, walked 8, and gave up 4 home runs. ZiPS thinks his 2021 will be similar, albeit with more innings pitched (they project him to pitch 56 innings).

He’s bound to contribute to the team’s success again this season, so let’s take a look at what makes Thompson a valued member of the Rays’ bullpen.

Thompson is an East-West Pitcher

One thing that is unique about Thompson is his release point. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as the Rays’ bullpen is full of pitchers who have varying release points. Thompson uses a sidearm delivery. Looking at the graphic below, we can see that his release point is perpendicular to where he would be standing on the mound. For reference, a pitcher with a vertical arm slot would have the pitches concentrated approximately at or above the 6-ft line.

Baseball Savant

This arm slot is a contributor to the movement of his pitches. Thompson’s two primary pitches are a sinker and a slider, though he also throws a four-seam fastball. The release point combined with the natural horizontal movement of the primary pitches results in heat maps that favor the east/west edges of the zone.

Baseball Savant

While the four-seam is not traditionally an east/west moving pitch, Thompson’s actually has above average horizontal movement.

Thompson is a Ground Ball Pitcher

Thompson’s whiff rate is in the bottom 20% of the league. While this statistic may sound bad, it’s just an indication of Thompson’s pitching style.

Thompson pitches for contact. Last season, Thompson had a ground ball rate of 59%. The sinker yielded the most ground balls, and resulted in a ground ball 17% of the time. The average launch angle off of his sinker was -11 degrees.

Being an effective ground ball pitches has its benefits. Thompson only gave up 4 home runs out of 83 balls in play, and had a fly ball rate of 11%.

What Role Will Thompson Play This Season?

With Josh Fleming and Chris Mazza in the minors instead of the bullpen, and with Diego Castillo likely committed to high leverage situations, Thompson may become a groundball specialist in the opening months of 2021.

Primarily, though, I see Thompson as another reliable bullpen option. The Rays have a lot of pitching depth, and anyone with options is bound to be moved between the majors and the alternate site throughout the season to optimize match-ups.

Thompson’s deceptive delivery gives him an advantage, and his success last season will carry into this year. Looking forward to seeing more from him this season.