Q&A: Matt Thornton, New York Yankees Pitcher

Matt Thornton isn’t ready to call it a career. The southpaw reliever is 37 years old and is coming off a so-so season — the Red Sox left him off their post-season roster — but he feels he’s far from done. In fact, he just signed a free-agent contract with the New York Yankees.

It took a long time for him to get started on his career, though. Thornton was drafted out of high school by the Detroit Tigers, but his passion was basketball. The Sturgis, Mich., native eschewed his home-state team and enrolled at nearby Grand Valley State University, where he played both sports. Three years later, the Seattle Mariners made him the 22nd overall pick of the 1998 draft.

Thornton proceeded to spend seven years in the minor leagues. He reached Seattle at the age of 27, and after a pair of bumpy campaigns with the Mariners, he finally hit his stride after being dealt to the Chicago White Sox. Over 10 big-league seasons, Thornton has appeared in 606 games and averaged more than a strikeout per inning.

Thornton talked about his long road to big-league success late in the 2013 season.

Thornton on getting drafted out of high school: “I didn’t really know much about baseball. I watched it, but I was always a basketball guy. Basketball was my No. 1 sport and I played baseball for fun. I played summer baseball in high school, and in college as a secondary sport. I went to Grand Valley on a basketball scholarship.

“When I was drafted [in the 27th round] I was looking forward to going to college and playing basketball. I’m sure it was [all projection] I was 6-foot-5 and left-handed. I don’t even know how hard I threw. We didn’t have radar guns at my high school. It was a small school.”

On getting drafted out of college: “I actually asked why [I was drafted in the first round]. I was 6-foot-6, left-handed, and because I was a basketball player, they knew I was an athlete. I threw in the 90s. They also knew I’d be a quick sign. I’d be a project and would take some time, but they felt I had some talent.

“I still knew nothing about pitching. Again, basketball had been my priority. I had no idea how to make an adjustment. I didn’t know anything about mechanics. What I did was what my dad taught me when I was a kid. That was part of why it took me so long to have any success in the minor leagues. They broke me down completely and built me back up.

“They broke down my leg kick, my front side, my arm swing. Everything. I remember Rafael Chaves taking me out, and he had a big bucket of baseballs. I was 22 years old, it was extended spring, about 7 in the morning in Arizona. All I did was take baseballs — he’d hand them to me — and throw them over the fence, just to get my arm swing right. It was a complete overhaul. If you saw a video of me pitching in college, you wouldn’t even know it was me.”

On learning to pitch:
“When I started out in pro ball, I threw fastballs. I didn’t really know how to throw a slider; I’d never been taught the right way to throw a slider. I didn’t have a changeup. It was basically, Throw it in that direction.’ I threw a lot of balls.

“We worked on refining my mechanics. Mechanics were a big thing for me. Just being on the mound, and being able to pitch, was huge. After awhile, I began to have some success. Things started to iron out pretty well. I was throwing strikes.

“In 2001, I had a really nice year. At the end of 2000, I started throwing the ball better. I went to my third instructional league that year, and in 2001 kind of had my breakout.”

On velocity and Tommy John surgery:
“I think I touched 94 or 95 [mph], but I usually pitched at 91-92. That was before Tommy John. When I came back from that, I threw a lot harder.

“I [hurt my arm] in June 2002, had the surgery and got back in May the next year. I didn’t throw harder right away after coming back. I went to the Fall League that year and had about a 12.00 ERA. I just wasn’t right. But I came back the next spring training. That’s when my velocity spiked. I was up to 96-97.”

On his first big league season:
“I gave up 13 home runs in 50-something innings. I walked almost a batter per inning. I had a game where we were up 8-0 against Kansas City, and I came in to finish the game in the ninth inning. I went walk, walk, double play, walk, walk, grand slam, strikeout. I think I threw 47 pitches. That’s essentially what my season was like. Walks killed me. If I threw the ball over, I was OK, but I was still learning how to pitch. I really struggled.

“I was extremely frustrated. I don’t take failure very well. I don’t take letting teammates down very well. That eats me up more than anything. If I give up a run, and we win the game, I don’t care too much. But in that one game, I caused our guys to have to get up in the pen. I had trouble holding an 8-run lead. Games like that weigh on you.

“The trade came the following spring training, and the fresh start helped. I’d been [with Seattle] a long time. I knew everybody — I knew the coaches at every level — and it became a little too much. They all wanted to help, so I was getting input from every single pitching coach we had. They wanted me to be good, and I wanted to be good, but it became an overload kind of thing. I was trying to do too many things out there. I wasn’t focusing on the things I needed to focus on.”

On becoming a reliever:
“I think learning how to pitch out of the pen was big for my career. As a starter, you have a little more leeway to work through things. As a bullpen guy, you have to get up and go. It was a big change.

“After Tommy John, I had some nerve damage in my neck — the upper thoracic area — and missed some more time. That was in 2003. After that, I lost my changeup, which for awhile had been a good pitch for me. Having a third pitch was obviously extremely helpful. The pen was a move they thought was right. I’ve had success as a reliever, so it worked out well for me.”

On throwing over 90% fastballs in his best seasons:
“My first few years in Chicago, I was still considered to have some control issues. Hitters would go up there and take a pitch, so I was getting a free strike a lot of times. That’s gone. I get a lot of first-pitch swings now. But I was locating my fastball well and had late cut on it. I was sitting around 96. It was working, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

“When I got to Chicago, [pitching coach] Don Cooper told me to simplify things. He was one voice for me there. He asked, ‘What do you feel most comfortable throwing strike one with?’ I said, ‘Fastball, glove side, inside to a righty, away to a lefty.’ He said, ’Where do you generally start a right-handed hitter off?’ I said, ‘Fastball, down and away.’ He looked at me. Then he said, ‘I want you to throw strike one however you want to. If you throw strike one with your stuff, double down. If you throw strike two, double down again.’ He believed I could live on my fastball.

“Confidence was a big part of it. I had a little success in 2006, took a little step back in 2007, and in 2008 I came out and established myself as a go-to guy throughout a pennant chase.”

On his fastball: “A lot of people think it’s straight, but I have a little late cut on it. I throw from the left side of the rubber, so if I go in to a righty, it’s coming across the plate and burying in on them. They think it’s going to be a strike, and it usually ends up in. It’s not a cutter, it’s just that when I get good extension, I get some late cut.

“I’ve tinkered with a cutter before, but there was too much inconsistency with it. It was one of those things where I didn’t want to get beat with my third pitch in the situations I pitch in. A lot of pitchers will tell you that a well-located fastball is the best pitch in baseball. It’s a matter of making your pitches, and I feel if I locate my fastball, I’m going to have results.”

On getting limited opportunities as a closer
: “I had some really good years where Bobby Jenks was there, in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Bobby was a great closer. I got my chance in 2011 and things didn’t really go my way. I didn’t do the job, so I lost that chance. Sergio [Santos] took over that role.

“I’ve got a handful of saves in my career. I’ve never felt overwhelmed by the ninth inning. I don’t think it’s any different; it just hasn’t been my inning. I honestly believe my job is to do what’s best for the team. Whatever they need me for, whether it’s the sixth inning, the seventh inning, eighth inning, fifth inning — whatever it is, I’m going to do that.”

On his career and future: “I’m far from being done. I’m going to play as long as I can. I love the game of baseball. I love the competition and I want to win a championship. We have a great opportunity to do that this year in Boston, but even if we win the World Series, I have no desire to retire.

“I’m not sure if I’m satisfied with what I’ve accomplished. As an athlete, you’re never satisfied. You always want to do more. The game will tell you when it’s time to go. But looking back, I’ve always given it everything I have. I have no regrets. It’s been a great ride, and I’ve loved every second of it, but again, I’m not done. I hope I have another four or five years.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Sam Bluesfield
10 years ago

Awesome interview.