Relief pitchers are terrible. Their effectiveness is fleeting, their health is a brief moment of stillness between gusts of wind. The general rule of thumb in regard to investing in them is “Don’t.”
This seems like a necessary qualifier to chuck in front of any discussion of Matt Thornton’s nearly eight-year tenure with the Chicago White Sox–a performance of such high quality over a stretch of time so extended that it managed to be taken for granted.
No trades have the potential to make a general manager look like a genius like the ones where they give up nothing and have no expectations for their return. In being the return from Seattle (who has long since fired the GM responsible for the trade) for first-round bust Joe Borchard, Matt Thornton might have walked in with some small measure of gratitude from the fanbase.
Instead, Thornton might have been too anonymous for many to initially realize the miracle of transforming him into a half-decent reliever. His first season in Chicago saw him cut his walk rate by 40% and his home run rate by far more than that while moving from Safeco Field to U.S. Cellular. Thanks to a legendary instant-fix bullpen session that launched a thousand “Coop’ll fix ‘em” rationalizations, Thornton went from a guy who couldn’t throw his upper-90’s fastball for a strike, to someone who did it so well he needn’t bother with anything else.
The insane marvel that Thornton transformed into, and was forever graded against, was a key cog in the last White Sox team that managed to drag themselves to the playoffs. From 2008-10, Thornton struck out 245 batters in just 200.1 innings pitched. In essentially a full-season’s starter workload, he allowes just 13 home runs. Miles beyond simply being the rare lefty-specialist with staying power, Thornton was undeniably one of the 10 best relievers in baseball. The .601 OPS right-handers managed to scrape together against Easy Heat in 2009 was the highest-mark opposite-handers achieved off Thornton in that three-year span.
All the while, he became more of a one-pitch pitcher than ever. As it became demonstrably pointless to tinker, Thornton threw his harder-than-hard fastball over 90% of the time, to any batter at any time–grabbing strikes early in the count, as a putaway pitch, busting righties inside, getting lefties to chase high and away, or just to challenge hitters over the heart of the plate because who could square him up anyway?
For a sport that constantly has to explain why its more complex than it looks, Thornton was no help. He reduced the game to doing one thing perfectly and eschewed the accessories that human fallibility normally necessitates.
By the end of this insane run, the baseball world actually began to sit up and take notice. He earned his first and only All-Star bid and it was with a complimentary wink that Dave Cameron called him the “most predictable pitcher ever” in recognition of his improbably straight-forward approach. Before the 2011 season started, Thornton would see his dominance rewarded with a lucrative, two-year, $11 million extension.
But without a dominant team around him to create playoff memories, or even the glamour of a ninth-inning role, the most memorable Thornton moment is a tragic one. Hyper-consistent battleaxes are most notable for the singular moments when they falter, and Thornton, in his second inning of work trying to hold off the Minnesota goliath that would inevitably devour the 2010 Sox, became a footnote to 450 feet of symbolism of the obstinance and foolishness that characterized the end of the Ozzie Guillen era.
Thornton would finish the season as excellent as ever, but his timing would only worsen. His ascent to the closer role in 2011 would coincide with his first spate of poor command in years and he was placed in front of a doomed team that played outfield defense with the composure of dogs during a fireworks show. His luck on broken bats became so rotten the sound of his heater busting an opposing hitter on the handle inspired dread.
By the time he was earning the top-tier reliever salary his work had earned, Thornton was already adjusting for his own decline. As fascinating as it was to see him working in a loopy slurve at 35 years of age to keep hitters off a declining fastball, an managing to stay playable throughout the adjustment, he faced his highest-levels of scrutiny and accusations of being overpaid during what was effectively his victory lap, or as it’s proven to have been now, his farewell tour.
It’s easy at this point, especially with the Sox in freefall, to snarl a curt warning of how painful the process of learning to appreciate how great Thornton was will be for many. David Purcey and Donnie Veal are the left-handed relievers on the roster now. They’re human. They’ll lose their release point at times, lose feel for their breaking pitches and struggle for stretches that will drag out like days spent lost at sea.
If you’re up to looking, there is an easier process to appreciating Thornton available. There’s embarrassingly little video readily available in his MLB.com video archive, but it’s more than enough to get the idea.
It’s just old videos and laborious gamelogs now, filled with zeroes, but it’s the remnants of the trust and confidence Thornton used to inspire. And as much any reliever can, while fighting against time and how swiftly their grip over the sport ages and withers, Thornton was as good as it gets at making sure that trust was well-placed.
Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan