With Trayce Thompson mired in historic slump, how much leash can Dodgers give him?
For a brief moment, it appeared Trayce Thompson’s historic hitless streak had finally been broken.
In the sixth inning of Friday night’s game against the St. Louis Cardinals, the slumping Dodgers outfielder worked a full count, squared up an outside fastball on the payoff pitch, and sent the ball soaring toward the gap in right field.
As he peeled out of the box, the ball having jumped off his bat at 103 mph, Thompson took a wide turn around first and began charging to second.
More than a month removed from recording his last hit, the veteran fan favorite was thinking extra bases.
“He would do a lot,” manager Dave Roberts later said, “for that scoreboard to say ‘hit’ on it.”
Once again, however, Thompson would have to wait.
Despite his drive traveling 377 feet, and having an expected batting average of .610, it was nonetheless tracked down in center by speedy Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar.
Yet again, it was another out for Thompson.
Once more, a moment of mounting frustration amid an extended 0-for threatening to flatline his season.
“Would have been nice if Lars just let it go,” Thompson quipped a day later. “But just have to go out there and keep it simple. Try to go out and have good at-bats, and be ready for whenever my name is called.”
Indeed, if last season gave Thompson’s career much-needed new life — when the journeyman returned to the Dodgers in a midseason trade and flourished with the best performance of his seven MLB seasons — this year’s is in need of a rapid revival.
After hitting three home runs in his first game, and batting .241 over the opening three weeks, Thompson’s bat has gone missing in the month since, having failed to record a hit since a second-inning single on April 17.
He is hitless in his last 38 at-bats, tied for the longest such streak by a nonpitcher in the Dodgers’ L.A. history, according to SB Nation.
His average has plummeted to .109, the second-worst mark among all MLB hitters with at least 70 plate appearances (ahead of only teammate Austin Barnes).
And as a result, Thompson has seen his playing time slashed and role called into question, with his struggles against left-handed pitching, in particular, handicapping his utility in the Dodgers’ outfield platoon.
“You just gotta work, man,” he said this weekend. “Nothing ends if you sit here and sulk about it, and get down or dark about it.”
Sitting in the visiting dugout of Busch Stadium, Thompson conceded many “moments of being frustrated” while trying to reconcile the reasons for his slump, and clinged to the hope of a not-too-distant turnaround.
“There’s still a lot of season left,” he said. “So mentally, you can’t let it dwell.”
Exactly how much longer this can last, though, seems increasingly unclear.
While Roberts called himself the “biggest Trayce Thompson supporter” — praising the outfielder’s work ethic, consistent defense and quality of at-bat, including six walks in his last 20 plate appearances — the manager shied away from speculating about how much leash the player has left.
“The way we put together this roster, there’s a certain niche that he’s got to fulfill,” Roberts said. “Right now, it just obviously hasn’t been working out.”
It’s not an insignificant role, either.
With Chris Taylor and Mookie Betts playing regularly in the infield, Thompson is the only other right-handed-hitting outfielder on the roster.
The Dodgers planned on him being a platoon weapon, counting on him to counter left-handed pitching and provide pop further down the batting order.
Instead, Thompson has just one home run since his opening game. He has struck out in 43.6% of his trips to plate, the highest rate in the National League. And his issues against southpaws have loomed largest; he's just two for 36 in such at-bats with a .383 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
It’s part of the reason the team ranks poorly against left-handed pitching overall, with an OPS (.729) good for 20th in the majors and a batting average (.205) that sits dead last.
And eventually, it’s a problem the club will have to sort out — either by getting more from players like Thompson, or seeking out other right-handed bats that can provide more consistency.
“I feel for him, man,” Roberts said. “He works as hard as anybody. I’m just hoping at some point, there’s something that clicks.”
This is far from Thompson’s first challenge as a major leaguer, comparing this stretch to his poor performance in 2017, which ended his first tenure as a Dodger, and 2018, which was followed by a three-year odyssey back through the minors.
The biggest difference this time?
“I’ve learned what not to do,” he said. “In 2018, ’17, I feel like I let circumstances get to me, as opposed to looking in the mirror and being like, ‘What can I do to get better, to make this situation better for myself and the team?’ ”
“You’re gonna have stretches where you’re not good,” he added. “Everyone goes through it. But you’ve just got to prepare each day like it’s a new day, be optimistic. Have that perspective of, ‘I’m due,’ as opposed to woe is me.”
There have been a few signs of life lately, like the line drive Nootbaar snagged on Friday, or the 108.3 mph screamer that was snared by Minnesota Twins shortstop Carlos Correa earlier in the week.
Thompson even aided the Dodgers' near-comeback Thursday in St. Louis, drawing a key walk in an at-bat during which he also pulled a potential home run just foul.
“Those are things you have to build off of,” Thompson said. “I’ve been searching for that all year.”
Yet, in other recent moments Thompson’s play has remained choppy — such as the called third strike he took as a pinch-hitter Sunday, or the two punchouts he suffered against left-hander Steven Matz to start his game Friday.
“When you’re not playing and you’re not producing, things can pile up,” he said. “You can want to get it all back in one at-bat, but that’s not how this game works.”
Gazing across the field this weekend, there was still a poise in Thompson’s voice, an unwavering belief his season is not yet beyond saving.
“I know it’s coming. I’ve felt good,” he said. “I just have to go out there and execute.”
But as long as his current results continue, so will speculation about Thompson’s place with the team.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.