How Trent Thornton's unorthodox delivery presents a coaching quandry

Yahoo Canada Sports
(Ciaran Breen/Getty)
(Ciaran Breen/Getty)

“My arm goes down, kind of behind my back then shoots up like a slingshot and then releases. It’s not the most attractive arm action.”

That’s how Trent Thornton describes his delivery. He’ll also happily tell you that his arm “looks like a noodle flapping around” and his limbs “flail all over the place.” He’s not in the business of sugar coating it. When Thornton pitches, people scratch their heads.

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It’s the way he’s always done it, though. Since he was a kid he always looked up to pitchers with a dramatic leg kick. The comparables he conjures for himself range from Dontrelle Willis to Nolan Ryan. Dyar Miller, his Triple-A pitching coach in 2017 and 2018 with the Fresno Grizzlies, goes further back to pull up Juan Marichal and Warren Spahn.

“I was always fascinated by a high leg kick,” Thornton says. “Guys that don’t have a simple delivery are just that little bit more fun to watch. You look at a guy like Tim Lincecum, he had such a long stride and he was a lot of fun to watch. Even Max Scherzer has a little head whip.”

To this point it’s hard to dispute that Thornton’s method has worked for him, as it carried the 25-year-old to the big leagues. There’s never really been a viable alternative.

“That’s the only way I can throw,” he says. “I’ve fooled around and tried to throw ‘normal’ but it just doesn’t work.”

Thornton’s unusual delivery can make things more difficult for opposing hitters, but the same can probably be said for coaches, who Thornton says have been “scared” to tamper with it.

“In general you’ve got a guy with an unorthodox delivery with a lot of moving parts, he does a lot of things really well,” Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker says. “But obviously when there are a lot of moving parts, things go wrong at times. There’s more room for issues.”

It becomes difficult to know how to tinker with guys’ mechanics when they rely on so many disparate elements working in harmony. More often than not, the strategy has been to just leave it alone.

“A bunch of coaches of mine have talked about my mechanics saying how unorthodox they are because I have so many moving parts,” Thornton says. “Because they work for me no coach has ever touched me.”

At the University of North Carolina, there was never a thought of trying to conventionalize the right-hander. In fact, then pitching coach Scott Forbes only saw the positives of his funkiness.

“We went over to see him and it was right down the road. The delivery was definitely unorthodox, but I liked how the ball came out of his hand,” he says. “I didn’t really think much of his delivery. It had some distinctness to it, which I kind of liked.”

When assembling the entire team’s pitching staff, Forbes liked the idea of emphasizing variation.

“We believed in having as many looks as possible on our staff,” he says. “We believed in some basic things at the foundation of a delivery and being able to repeat it, but changing someone who has a good feel for the strike zone isn’t always necessary.”

After his junior year he caught the eye of Mike Elias, the scouting coordinator of the Houston Astros, who’s now the Baltimore Orioles’ general manager. The Astros picked him in the fifth round, enamoured with his ability to spin the breaking ball.

The delivery was “talked about quite a bit” according to Miller, who was a pitching coordinator in the organization at the time. Ultimately the decision was to let sleeping dogs lie.

“We had a rule that we don’t mess with anybody their first pro year basically,” he says. “We didn’t mess with him and he kept having success so we didn’t think changing anything drastic with him was the right thing to do.”

Thornton encountered his first true speed bump with his motion in 2016. Pitching at High-A Lancaster, windy conditions caused him to get blown off the mound and lose his balance consistently. It forced him to tone down his leg kick to a level he calls “almost normal.”

The change didn’t last long. When he reached reach Triple-A, Miller was encouraged to get Thornton back to his original delivery.

“When I had him in Triple-A, Mike Elias comes through and says, ‘what happened to his leg kick?’ And I hadn’t noticed it, but it wasn’t quite as pronounced as when he signed.”

Houston was particularly confident in Thornton to avoid the embrace of conventionality because of physical testing they’d done on the right-hander. Generously listed a six-foot and weighing in at 190 pounds, the 25-year-old doesn’t have the look of a physical specimen. However, the Astros testing revealed that his flexibility was off the charts, making his unusual contortions possible without additional injury risk.

When the Blue Jays got their hands on Thornton, they maintained the laissez-faire attitude the rookie was accustomed to.

“I think extreme changes are risky,” Walker says. “You have a guy that’s having some success. I’ve seen cases of guys making larger adjustments and all of a sudden not having the same stuff. There’s always risk of affecting the stuff and the movement of the baseball.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing for Walker to do. On Saturday, for instance, he had a lengthy discussion with Thornton about his disastrous start the previous night where he allowed two 500-level home runs. That discussion centred around keeping his tempo consistent and staying within himself.

“There are subtle things we’ll work on like glove height and consistency with a few things,” he says. “But for the most part it’s controlling his tempo.”

Instructing a pitcher often has a lot more to do with the mental game than mechanics, and Thornton isn’t some unicorn who doesn’t stand to benefit from his coaches at all. Ultimately, the right-hander is an unproven rookie with a great deal to learn. He’s just a little bit different and has received treatment that’s a bit different.

Thornton also benefits from the era he plays in. Nowadays having an elite spin rate is going to get you farther than a prototypical frame. If you put up objective results folks are going to be less concerned with how you do it. Bo Bichette and his unusual swing are an excellent example in the Blue Jays system.

“I was fortunate enough that when I signed that the Blue Jays weren’t going to touch me,” he says. “I also fortunate enough to get off to a good start. I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t.”

Player development policies are hard to generalize league-wide, but the prevailing wisdom is that you let guys go until there’s a reason not to. That wasn’t always the case. Miller, whose MLB career ran from 1975 to 1981 before he got into coaching, feels he was hurt by being instructed to conform.

“I know it happened to me. They wanted to take away my overhead delivery. I did what the coach wanted me to do. I don’t know if it helped me or not. I’m more inclined now that I’ve been coaching over 30 years to say I would have been better off staying as I was.”

For now, it looks like the Blue Jays are going to let Trent Thornton be Trent Thornton. It’s far too early to know where that takes him at the MLB level, but thanks in part to his flapping noodle arm and flailing limbs, it’s going to be fun to watch him get there.

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