I bet Jake Thompson was a cute baby. I bet there's someone reading this who's saying to themselves, "I was there, and he was a cute baby." And I bet he was a big baby. And I know he was a local baby. Born in Rockwall, and a 2012 graduate of Rockwall-Heath High School, Jake was the Tigers 2nd Round pick in the 2012 draft. The Tigers didn't have a 1st rounder that year after signing a giant, slugging free agent first baseman named "Prince Fielder", so Jake was their first choice with the 91st pick. His selection was the handiwork of Tigers area scout/Tom's son/Ben's older brother, Tim Grieve. (Incidentally, Tim got the Tigers' first three picks that year when following Jake's selection, they took Frisco Centennial's Austin Schotts, followed by Vanderbilt's 6'6", fellow Rockwall-Heath alum, Drew VerHagen) Anyways, I'm burying the lede. I bet Thompson had the ladies swooning early because of his steely, bright eyes and rakish half-curled, sandy blond hair. Both his hair and his eyes still tease at traces of a thundering young Jake tearing through the mean streets of Rockwall on his two-wheeler, but they are all that remain of the over-sized 17 year-old I once saw throwing 90mph seeds while going 4-for-5 at the plate with legitimate power. The eyes and the unkempt curls remain, but now they sit upon the frame of a grown-ass man. 6'4" and 235lbs, there's very little that resembles the pitcher who dogpiled his high school teammates at Round Rock's Dell Diamond in 2012 after winning the state championship. He still throws 90mph, faster actually, and he still throws a wipeout slider, but now he usually knows where they're going.
After turning 20 in January, Jake began this season with the Tigers' high-A club in Lakeland, Florida (minutiae note- Lakeland's PA announcer is often Bob Asher, Alec's father) where he made 16 starts before being promoted in time to make 2 starts at AA Erie. Not only do I not see the Tigers in Spring Training as they remain one of the lone, non-east coast holdouts left in Florida, there isn't any cross over between their affiliates and Texas', meaning I simply haven't seen the kid pitch in person since high school. So I went right to the man-child himself to get the skinny on what's been happening with him since 2012, and his thoughts on being one of the newest members of the Texas Rangers organization.
First of all, where were you when you found out about the trade and did you have any idea your name was being tossed around in the discussions? "I was eating dinner in downtown Erie with a couple of teammates. I had a feeling, because I knew the Tigers needed to make a big move to try to get somebody there, but I didn't have any idea to who or when or where. It was probably 8:30-9 o'clock at night and I was sitting there eating after playing a round of golf."
How'd you shoot? "Uhhh, I shot an 81."
Whoa. Really? Did you grow up playing around here a lot? "Yeah, I played at Buffalo Creek, The Shores, Plantation out here in Frisco."
[*FACT* All starting pitchers, at all levels, play golf...all the time. Because they hate running. *FACT*]
Did you grow up a Rangers fan? "I was a big Rangers fan. That was my team, all the way up. I've played here (Dr. Pepper Park) 4 or 5 times and I've probably been to 10 games here, or so."
This is stupid and you'll be asked this a lot, but is there a way to articulate what you felt when you found out you'd been traded and it was to Texas? "For one, I was excited when I found out I was traded to Texas and I talked with the Rangers people and found out I was coming here [Frisco]. Because, I mean, I live right down the road and I was super pumped about that. I guess the only way to say it is that it's kind of a dream, to play for the team you grew up rooting for."
Stuff wise, I know about the fastball, and the slider, but tell me about the changeup and it's development, and there's a curveball now? "Yeah, the changeup, I'm still figuring it out, but it's come a long way. It's like a claw grip, I throw it with three fingers."
Is that the first grip you tried? "No. I tried a bunch. I used to throw a split change, but I couldn't control it. The circle change, I couldn't throw it very well. It would usually cut. I was messing around one day, and put the claw grip on it and it was decent. I'm still messing around with it, trying to figure out how to throw it a little bit harder and with less break. I'm trying to throw it more. It's usually pretty good against lefties, so I'm trying to incorporate it more. I use it a lot against lefties. Every now and then I'll throw it to a righty, but I usually just throw one of my breaking balls at a righty."
I don't remember you throwing a curve in high school. "I didn't. The Tigers actually started making me throw it last year. That's why I started the year in Extended Spring Training. They wanted me to work on developing that. I use a semi-spike, not full. They just wanted me to have a softer breaking ball. It's a 12-6 in the mid-70's, 80-81. Some days it's a little big bigger and it's better when it's softer. Other days it's short and a little bit harder. The slider is still my go-to, out pitch. When I want to put it in the zone, I make it a big breaker, start it at a right handed hitter and it'll end up in the zone. I throw it harder and tighten it when I'm trying to get him to swing and miss. [the velocity] depends on how much I play with it that day. It could be anywhere from 80-86,87 if I really throw it hard."
I'm sure this has been nutty for you, but tons of friends and family coming out this weekend, or for your start on Tuesday? "Yeah, there should be a lot of people here on Tuesday. A lot of people I went to High School with, my family. I got, probably, 140 text messages the first day."
What's the one thing you want to work on for the rest of the season? "At this point, this late in the year, it's consistency. Go out, and not necessarily go 8 innings and strike out 15 guys, but just have solid starts every time out and finish the year strong."
We chatted a bit about moving back in with his parents, watching Gallo's now famous BP session at The Futures Game, and the prodigious swing of his former travel ball teammate and current Pirates prospect, Josh Bell. I don't think he knows any of his new teammates in the least, and I got the impression only the ballpark and the "T" on his practice shorts felt familiar. It was his first day here and his head was swimming, because all of our heads would have been swimming. But he's a cool customer, and the "makeup" scouting report matched the mojo. He's a big kid, he's a calm kid. He's soft spoken, but makes Texas-raised eye contact. I bet he was a handsome baby, but despite the fact that he's now living with his parents again, he's not a baby. He's a dude.
It's a pretty unique situation to be in the town where you were born and raised, returning in a hyper-public spotlight to finish the final steps towards the goal you've had since you were first playing on fields not far from where you play now and not far from where the rainbow actually ends. Phew! It's a lot of pressure too, but I'm buying in on Jake. I'm getting in the water and saying he'll be one of the home-grown products who does right by the hometown team. He's got the ability and he's got the mindset, and at the very least he's got the eyes.
As always, enjoy baseball! Love Ya!