Cubs reliever Keegan Thompson is pitching like somebody who knows he’s in the right place.
‘‘When you first get here, it’s like, ‘This is the big leagues,’ ’’ Thompson said. ‘‘You’re not really sure if you belong. And then you pitch a little bit, have some success, and you feel like you belong. And then you get your first taste of rough patches. You have to go through those things and adjust and try to stay even-keeled. I think just having the experience last year, just knowing I can throw here and belong here, just helps the confidence level.’’
Thompson’s confidence level is pretty high less than a month into his second big-league season.
In four outings and 13 2/3 innings to begin the season, Thompson hasn’t allowed a run. According to Cubs historian Ed Hartig, Thompson is the fifth Cubs pitcher with four scoreless relief appearances of at least eight outs in a month since 1893, the last being Mike Proly in August 1982. In the wake of the shortened spring training, that has allowed manager David Ross to go to his bullpen earlier and not tax his starters more than he would like.
‘‘Keegan’s been extremely valuable,’’ Ross said. ‘‘Can’t overstate how well he’s pitched and how good he’s looked and how valuable that arm has been for us.’’
Thompson showed promise last season, compiling a 3.38 ERA in 32 appearances. His season ended on a sour note, however, after he essentially was given a tryout for the 2022 rotation but posted a 7.11 ERA in five starts. He also spent time on the 10-day injured list twice because of inflammation in his right (pitching) shoulder.
That experience, however, proved not to be the worst thing for his development. Ross said Thompson was able to decompress and reset after last season and arrived at spring training in great shape and ready to pitch.
‘‘You can tell he has a lot of confidence in himself, and I think sometimes just being at the big-league level and knowing that you belong here and having some success and also some struggles that push you to continue to get better is a good thing,’’ Ross said.
A noticeable difference for Thompson this season has been his command of the strike zone. He walked 5.23 batters per nine innings last season but has shaved that to 1.98 so far this season. He also has been more efficient, throwing 68% of his pitches for strikes (compared with 62% last season) and 12.73 pitches per inning (down from 18.11 last season).
Seeing those numbers, it makes sense that Thompson thinks the key to his start has been attacking the strike zone.
‘‘Especially compared to last year, I’ve been much better attacking the zone early in the counts and not falling behind,’’ Thompson said. ‘‘I think it’s just allowing my off-speed [pitches] to play a lot more off the fastball. If I was working behind, I wouldn’t be able to throw those pitches in certain counts and utilize those weapons as often as I have been able to so far.’’
Thompson’s success begs the question about whether he should get another shot at the rotation after being sent to the minors to get stretched out after the trade deadline last summer. Regardless of what comes his way, Thompson is ready.
‘‘Whatever [my role is] — starting, relieving, they want me to go long in relief — I’m here to do whatever they need me to do,’’ Thompson said.