Trayce Thompson Makes a Splash As the Dodgers’ Latest Reclamation Project

Trayce Thompson
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Trayce Thompson may not be the most accomplished professional athlete in his family — not when father Mychal Thompson and older brother Klay Thompson have six NBA titles and five All-Star selections between them — but for the first time in six years, he’s making significant noise of his own at the major league level. Now on his second stint with the Dodgers, the 31-year-old Thompson is in the midst of a modest breakout, one that could have ramifications for Los Angeles’ roster in October and beyond.

A night after the Dodgers clinched their ninth NL West title in 10 years, Thompson started in right field in place of Mookie Betts and followed a solo homer by Will Smith with one of his own, a 445-foot shot off Zach Davies. That tied the game at 2–2, though Los Angeles eventually lost in extra innings.

The homer was Thompson’s 10th of the season in just 205 plate appearances; he’s the eighth Dodger to reach double digits. Even with a September slump, the well-traveled outfielder has the highest wRC+ of any Dodger since the All-Star break and is tied for third in WAR, behind or alongside three players who are going to wind up somewhere on MVP ballots:

Dodgers Hitters Since the All-Star Break
Trayce Thompson 130 8 .279 .377 .595 168 1.9
Justin Turner 131 5 .330 .397 .565 168 1.4
Mookie Betts 229 14 .289 .358 .608 166 3.0
Freddie Freeman 223 7 .344 .413 .523 159 2.3
Max Muncy 195 11 .249 .333 .503 132 1.5
Gavin Lux 123 2 .294 .366 .459 132 1.0
Trea Turner 227 6 .303 .344 .479 130 1.9
Will Smith 194 8 .237 .325 .444 113 1.0
Joey Gallo 94 5 .173 .287 .420 100 0.3
Chris Taylor 120 3 .200 .292 .333 80 0.3
Cody Bellinger 161 6 .178 .242 .377 71 0.2
Minimum 80 plate appearances

That’s pretty lofty company for a player who’s on his third organization and fourth team (including affiliates) this season. Thompson is yet another reminder of the Dodgers’ ability to find diamonds in the rough and turn them into championship-caliber cogs, a facet of their organization that’s been as essential as their player development pipeline. Turner was in his age-29 season when he became a mainstay in 2014, Taylor in his age-26 season in ’17, and Muncy in his age-27 season in ’18. Despite their staggered starts, they’re three of the Dodgers’ five most valuable position players since Dave Roberts took over as manager in 2016.

As for Thompson, his route back to L.A. was a long one. He signed a minor league deal with the Padres after the lockout ended, started the season with the Triple-A El Paso Chihuahuas, played six games for the Padres in late April and early May, was designated for assignment and elected free agency, then signed with the Tigers, who sent him to Triple-A Toledo. He spent a month as a Mud Hen before being traded to the Dodgers for cash considerations on June 20, the day after Betts landed on the injured list with a fractured rib following a collision with Bellinger.

The trade marked a homecoming for Thompson. Not only did he grow up in Orange County, but he also played for the Dodgers in 2016–17 after being acquired in a three-team trade by the White Sox in December 2015. Chicago had drafted him in the second round out of Santa Margarita High School in 2009 and brought him to the majors six years later. He hit .295/.363/.533 with five homers in 135 plate appearances for the White Sox, who nonetheless sent him to Los Angeles along with Micah Johnson and Frankie Montas — neither of whom had any impact for the Dodgers, though Montas was included in the following summer’s trade for Rich Hill — and landed Todd Frazier in return.

Thompson opened the 2016 season with the Dodgers and spent stretches starting at all three outfield positions when other players were injured. From Opening Day through June 19, he hit .259/.340/.506 (129 wRC+) with 11 homers in 191 PA, but he tried to play through back pain, compromised his mechanics, and fell into a slump. From June 20 to July 10, he hit just .136/.197/.258 in 71 PA before landing on the disabled list with what was termed “lower back irritation.” In early August, with a rehab assignment nearing, he was diagnosed with two fractured vertebrae. He didn’t play again that year and hit just .122/.218/.265 in 55 PA with the Dodgers in 2017, shuttling back and forth between Los Angeles and Triple-A Oklahoma City.

Out of options the following spring, Thompson passed from the Dodgers to the Yankees to the A’s and back to the White Sox in a 16-day span. Somehow, he hit an unfathomable .117/.162/.211 in 137 PA for Oakland and Chicago; his -5 wRC+ was the majors’ worst among players with at least 100 PA that year. He spent most of 2019 in Cleveland’s organization and ’20 at the Diamondbacks’ alternate training site. After beginning last year with Arizona’s Triple-A Reno affiliate, he was traded to the Cubs and whacked four homers in 35 PA in September for a team that was going nowhere. The last of those was a grand slam that effectively sent Jon Lester into retirement.

Upon rejoining the Dodgers this season, Thompson came off the bench and hit a two-run double on June 22 and a solo homer the next night, both against the Reds. That bought him a longer look starting in right field while Betts recovered, and when Taylor fractured his left foot in early July, he got looks in left field as well. In all, the righty-swinging Thompson has started 19 of the team’s 20 games against left-handers since June 25, though he actually hasn’t hit southpaws very well — just .174/.250/.348, with a 44.7% strikeout rate and 70 WRC+ in 76 PA including his time in San Diego. He’s added another 24 starts against righties, whom he’s absolutely pummeled (.314/.411/.600, 181 wRC+ in 124 PA). Seventeen of his starts with the Dodgers have come in left field, 12 in center, and 11 in right.

Overall, Thompson’s .257/.346/.508 (139 wRC+) line is a huge step up from the .208/.283/.405 (85 wRC+) he hit in 624 PA from 2015 to ’21. Since returning to the majors late last season, he’s hit the ball much harder, which is why I didn’t aggregate it along with the data from his first four seasons here:

Trayce Thompson Statcast Hitting
Season BBE EV LA Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2015-2018 372 87.7 11.4 8.1% 36.0% .206 .229 .389 .400 .287 .304
2021 17 92.3 16.9 35.3% 58.8% .250 .298 .714 .777 .453 .492
2022 102 92.3 17.2 15.7% 47.1% .257 .250 .508 .468 .368 .354

That’s a 4.6-mph gain in average exit velocity and a nearly six-point gain in average launch angle. His groundball rate dropped from 45% in 2015–18 to 29.4% since returning, and his pull rate rose from an already-high 45.4% to a potentially problematic 60.5%. For what it’s worth, he’s hit .360 and slugged .420 in 50 PA against the shift since his resurfacing.

One very tantalizing (if preliminary) nugget of information about Thompson is that he placed very high when old friend Mike Petriello premiered Statcast bat tracking data in mid-July. Based on data captured via high-speed (300 frames per second) cameras at Minute Maid Park and Dodger Stadium, Thompson had the fastest average swing speed of any Dodger (91.1 mph) and trailed only Julio Rodríguez, Luis Robert, Giancarlo Stanton and Franmil Reyes among the admittedly limited selection of players with at least three batted balls in those venues at that juncture. As with maximum exit velocity, “[I]t’s clear that even in this limited sample there’s some real signal here,” wrote Petriello.

Thompson’s rise from the ashes has been aided by a cavalcade of Remembered Guys who have helped him rework his mechanics and mental approach. He’s remained in contact with Shawn Wooten, who served as his hitting coach at Oklahoma City and who now runs a hitting academy in Minnesota that Thompson visits in the offseason. As Fox Sports’ Rowan Kavner wrote of the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Thompson:

“It’s awesome to have a very athletic, big-levered guy, but those guys move a little different,” Wooten said. “To get everything lined up and make sure it all works, especially with the longer legs that they stay underneath your shoulders, is probably the hardest thing to do. The ones that can do it are electric, and the ball goes really far, but they do get out of whack.”

To combat that, Wooten watches video and adds a physical or mental cue for players where he sees fit. He doesn’t like to offer input unless he has the video. This year, there’s not much needed.

Joc Pederson, who became friends with Thompson via the White Sox and Dodgers’ shared spring facility at Camelback Ranch and then became his teammate in 2016, introduced him to Marlon Byrd, who had helped Pederson with his swing. This past winter, Thompson hit with Byrd.

A turning point for Thompson came in 2020, when Diamondbacks director of player development Josh Barfield introduced him to former All-Star Grady Sizemore, his favorite player growing up. Last year, Sizemore began offering feedback to videos of Thompson’s swing. Via Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein:

These days, they talk, at minimum, twice a month. “I still can’t believe I have his number,” Thompson says. Sizemore might seem like the perfect person to counsel Thompson on persevering through injuries, but Thompson has never mentioned his. Sizemore did not learn of Thompson’s broken back until a reporter asked him about it. Sometimes Sizemore will suggest a minor mechanical change, but more often they discuss approach. Thompson had so much success so early that he had not fully honed his mentality for when things went wrong. He had to learn to feel comfortable with falling short, with trusting a process even when the results look bad. “Failure really gives us answers to how to get better,” he says.

…Sizemore emphasizes that when the swing feels wrong, it’s not usually the swing; it’s something leading up to the swing. “Your timing,” he says. “Whether you’re carrying a bad at bat or a bad stretch or playing time, a lot of it is just timing. So I’m just trying to work within his swing and help him be in a better position to have success.”

Thompson’s game still has its holes. He’s got a 15.1% swinging-strike rate and a 38% strikeout rate, and while he’s punishing the fastballs with which he connects (.312 AVG/.591 SLG), he’s also whiffing on 34.4% of them. He’s particularly vulnerable to those in the upper third of the strike zone or higher (.156 AVG/.281 SLG, 47.8% whiff), and has whiff rates of 46.2% against breaking pitches (though he’s at 222 AVG/.481 SLG overall) and 47.4% against offspeed pitches (.154 AVG/.231 SLG).

Regarding his reverse platoon split against fastballs (.379 AVG/.724 SLG versus righties, .189/.351 versus lefties), Kavner wrote, “Thompson is working with the team’s hitting coaches to get in better position against lefties, particularly against fastballs.” And despite those high whiff rates, Thompson remains a selective hitter, with a 28.4% chase rate and 44.1% swing rate, not to mention an 11.2% walk rate.

Thompson’s offensive performance and his defensive proficiency (4 DRS, 4 RAA, 1.6 UZR in 402.2 innings) have opened up some avenues for him even on the star-studded Dodgers. The continuing struggles of Bellinger (78 wRC+ overall) and Taylor (97 wRC+) have put their October playing time in doubt. “I think the reset window has passed,” Roberts said last week after the pair received a mental breather but failed to turn things around (though Taylor has shown some signs of life since then). Gallo is in the picture as well but has hit just .156/.229/.375 (69 wRC+) in 35 PA in September, reminiscent of his woes in New York after a more promising start out west.

A postseason outfield with Betts in right and Thompson in either left or center, with Roberts mixing and matching from a pool that also includes Lux (who’s recovering from back troubles) but may not contain all of those mentioned here, seems almost inevitable. And with Gallo set to be a free agent and Bellinger an increasingly likely candidate to be non-tendered, Thompson, who is on track to reach arbitration eligibility for the first time this winter, offers a comparatively inexpensive option for next year, assuming the Dodgers believe what he’s shown them this year is for real. That’s no slam dunk, but a year ago, nobody thought he’d have a shot like this.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Manute Bol sings better than this
1 year ago

Perry has been instructed to offer Seth Curry 5 years, $50 million the day after this season ends. This is why.