Tyler Thornburg was the definition of a reasonably OK pitcher during the 2014-2015 seasons. His ERA+ in that span was almost exactly league average at 99, his 4.51 FIP over 64.0 IP in that time neither good nor debilitating enough to sink a bullpen on his own. Prior to the 2016 season, though, Thornburg’s Milwaukee Brewers brought in a new pitching coach, and the righty’s numbers took off: 2.15 ERA, 199 ERA+, 2.83 FIP, and a career-best 12.1 K/9 over 67.0 IP.
That then-new pitching coach, of course, was current Cincinnati Reds pitching guru Derek Johnson. And after Thornburg reached free agency this winter after a pair of brutal seasons with the Boston Red Sox, it’s hardly a surprise to see a low-risk reunion between the pair - exactly what happened today when the Reds inked the RHP to a minor-league deal. MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon relayed the news.
#reds signed RH reliever Tyler Thornburg to a minor lg deal and invited him to camp— Mark Sheldon (@m_sheldon) December 31, 2019
Of course, if a pitcher goes from a 199 ERA+ season to signing minor-league contracts in just a few years time, something must have obviously gone wrong in the meantime. In Thornburg’s case, that’s exactly what happened.
He was dealt to Boston after the 2016 season in a pricey acquisition for the Red Sox, as they sent both Travis Shaw and Mauricio Dubon to Milwaukee to help bolster their World Series caliber bullpen. Unfortunately, Thornburg’s shoulder gave out, and after never once throwing a big league pitch in 2017 he underwent thoracic outlet surgery to attempt to repair the issue.
In just 42.2 IP across 2018-2019, Thornburg allowed 10 dingers and 31 ER, posting an ugly 5.71 FIP, and 1.67 WHIP in that time. That’s the bad news here.
The good news, though, is that his fastball velocity has largely returned, as it sat at an average of 93.7 mph during the 2019 season - just a sniff off his career-best mark of 94.1 mph in 2016 prior to the surgery. And while his stuff was getting crushed early and often last year, the spin rates on both his fastball and curveball did rate as elite, something the new pitching staff of the Reds has certainly placed in high regard.
So, there’s upside here, and it comes on a minor-league deal that allows the Reds to bail in Goodyear if things don’t look like they’re fixable. That, folks, is a pretty solid deal all around.