Blogger’s note: Ian Thomas played just seven games for the Revs in 2012, but the lefty has been putting up stellar numbers with Double-A Mississippi in the Braves organization. Here’s a look at what he credits with helping his career progress — including a short stop in the Atlantic League.
Ian Thomas doesn’t hesitate in placing the blame on what happened at the end of last season. He believed he had not done enough to help his team win, he believed he had not improved enough as a pitcher.
Thomas, 26, had ascended from independent baseball to earn his first job in affiliated baseball, going from the York Revolution to the Class A Rome Braves last season. On the mound and pitching in the first round of the playoffs, Thomas allowed a two-run homer in the playoffs.
“We lost … and I was a huge part of that,” Thomas said. “Maybe that doesn’t happen if I had thrown my breaking ball for strikes. When I went back home and thought about it, I decided I will not survive in this field if I don’t have a breaking ball that falls away from left-handed hitters. I knew I had to have that.”
He came to his first spring training with the Atlanta Braves this year. Undrafted and unsigned out of college, he wanted to keep the pressure on the Braves to make a spot for him in Double-A.
“I kept an open mind, because I didn’t know any different,” Thomas said. “But I turned it up a little notch after last season.”
The Thomas curveball arrived with some bite—starting in spring. Through his first 26 games for Double-A Mississippi, Thomas has a 3-3 record with one save and a 2.43 ERA. He has struck out an eye-popping 56 batters and walked just 13 in 37 innings of relief.
“That’s why I am where I am right now, and that’s why I have the numbers I have,” Thomas said during a telephone interview earlier this week. “I’ll throw my curveball on any count … and hitters need to honor everything.”
After pitching at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Thomas had three standout seasons for the independent and short-season Winnipeg Goldeyes. He never posted an ERA higher than 2.81, and former Revs third baseman Vince Harrison vouched for his former teammate with the Revs coaching staff.
“I have to give Vince Harrison a lot of credit,” Thomas said, “because I want to say he is the reason why York gave me a chance.
“The Atlantic League is the premium league for indie ball. Some guys take it for granted, but players do get picked up and they go places.”
Thomas arrived in York as one of the younger players in the Atlantic League last season, and at the time he hoped to prove he could compete against veteran and major-league caliber hitters.
“He was a young guy that had done really well in (the American Association),” Revolution manager Mark Mason said. “He was available and left handed. I knew he threw hard, because I saw him before. You just don’t know how guys will translate here to this league. But when you’re a left hander throwing over 90 with a changeup, no matter who the hitter is, that’s a tough combination.”
Thomas struggled in spring training with York last season, locating his fastball. Former York manager Andy Etchebarren and Mason believed Mason was over-throwing, trying to do too much.
“It’s like I told him and like I tell all pitchers: You have to have fastball command,” Mason said. “Your secondary pitches are not going to be good if you don’t have fastball command. When pitchers struggle with fastball command, usually the breaking stuff is going to be short. So it’s going to be out of the zone right away. So the hitters, they’re looking for the ball up, and when they see it down right away they let it go. Usually everything rides off your fastball. Usually when pitchers have good fastball command, they’re going to be good.
“We really worked on fastball command and we worked on his changeup a lot -– and that got him out of here.”
Thomas didn’t last long in York, posting a 0.96 ERA in seven relief appearances. He struck out 12 in 9 1/3 innings, earning a contract from the Braves.
The most important thing he may have taken with him from York, however, was a conversation with fellow lefty reliever Jim Houser. The two had a conversation in the Sugar Land Skeeters bullpen during the first road trip, and Houser taught him how he threw a spike curveball.
Thomas doesn’t know why it clicked, because Houser and Thomas have completely different arm action, but the conversation started his development of the breaking ball. After throwing it for a year, he finally found the feel and correct release point for the pitch. And his career has been changed because of it. A friend texted him earlier this year when he noticed Thomas had been rated the 20th prospect in Atlanta’s farm system by Braves.com.
“I was like, ‘Holy cow! I can’t believe this,’” Thomas said laughing. “That blows me away, I never expected that. … I didn’t get drafted, I’m not one of these big money guys. I was a late bloomer.”
The Revs have helped former big leaguers return to the major leagues — including Tike Redman and Shawn Hill. The Revs have also helped a former first-round draft pick like Scott Rice advance his career, earning his major league debut with the Mets earlier this season. But should Thomas’s career arc continue, he would be the first Revs player with no affiliated experience to go from the Revs to the big leagues.
And there’s reason to believe he has a chance. He’s a lefty reliever, who has three pitches and can throw 90-plus mph. The most important thing he has going for him though could be his age.
“He’s still young,” Mason said, “so he still has a chance to go up the ladder.”