Blue Jays: Why Trent Thornton should be a rotation lock in 2020

ST. PETERSBURG, FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 05: Trent Thornton #57 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches to the Tampa Bay Rays in the first inning of a baseball game at Tropicana Field on September 05, 2019 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
ST. PETERSBURG, FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 05: Trent Thornton #57 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches to the Tampa Bay Rays in the first inning of a baseball game at Tropicana Field on September 05, 2019 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images) /
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The Blue Jays have already added to their starting rotation and will look to continue to improve the group, but Trent Thornton should have a job regardless.

The 2019 season was a pretty forgettable one for the Blue Jays, outside of the debuts of several exciting rookies. It was a long season, just imagine what it would have been like if he didn’t have the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and more to keep us interested.

Perhaps the most maddening aspect of the 2020 roster was the starting rotation, which at times had as few as two viable MLB starters, with the rest of the games being stitched together by “openers” and “bulk guys”. We even saw Charlie Montoyo have no choice but to send Edwin Jackson out to the hill, even when he was sporting a four digit ERA.

In the midst of the madness was an under the radar performance from another Blue Jays rookie, Trent Thornton. If you look at his overall numbers on the season, Thornton turned in a pretty underwhelming season, finishing with a record of 6-9, an ERA of 4.84 and a WHIP of 1.406 across 29 starts (32 appearances) and 154.1 innings pitched, good for 1.8 bWAR. However, a closer look reveals a young pitcher that learned a lot throughout the year, and kept getting better.

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First of all, Thornton was the only Blue Jays starter to last the entire season as a starting option, and that counts for something (just ask Tanner Roark, who just got 24 million as a reliable innings-eater). However, simply because able to last isn’t enough, and Thornton showed that he’s capable of more than that as the season wore on. Granted, it was later in the calendar, but Thornton’s ERA hit a season-high of 5.55 on August 6th after he was touched up for six earned runs over 3.2 innings against the Tampa Bay Rays. From that point on, he was a different pitcher, and hopefully he can carry over the success he found in August and September into the 2020 campaign.

He lowered his ERA by 0.71 points over his final nine outings, and he really shined in September. He finished the month going 2-0 with a 2.19 ERA and a 0.892 ERA over two starts (five appearances) and 24.2 innings. September was when the numbers really started to show his improvement, but have a look at how things trended for him over the last three months of the season in terms of opponent’s slash line (and yes, his four appearances in July were ugly):

July:  .355/.403/.597
August:  .293/.336/.520
September:  .155/.245/.226
*For the rest of his season splits, have a look, here.

If we take that aforementioned August blow-up out, Thornton’s August ERA drops to 3.67 and the late-season numbers look even more promising.

A lot was made of Thornton taking the guidance and mentorship of Clay Buchholz late in the season, who finally returned after battling injury throughout most of the year. Buchholz built his career on pitching with movement and location as his focus, as he never really had elite fastball velocity. That tutelage seems to have rubbed off on Thornton in the right way, and the proof was in the numbers, especially over his last month or two.

While I’m 100% in favour of the Blue Jays trying to improve their starting rotation, both for the immediate and long-term, I’d hate to see that progress that Thornton made late last year still land him in Buffalo to start the 2020 campaign. He’ll be in a battle for a back-of-the-rotation spot against guys like Anthony Kay, Ryan Borucki, Jacob Waguespack and others, but I would think he has to have a leg up on the competition at this point.

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Last season we were sold on the idea of opportunity and development for the emerging young stars, and while that mostly applied to the position players, that same concept should probably apply to Thornton as well. He showed enough progress and improvement to deserve the first opportunity in 2020, and even if the Blue Jays add Ryu, Keuchel, or someone else, I hope he’s still a part of the rotation picture. In my mind, he’s earned at least the fifth starter’s job, and hopefully he can continue to apply his elite spin-rate and become a lot more.

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