The Runner Sports

Former Tar Heel Trent Thornton Astros’ Ace In Training

Right-handed starting pitcher Trent Thornton, was promoted from the Houston Astros’ Double-A Corpus Christi affiliate to the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies, April 29. The 23-year-old is traversing the organizational ladder so quickly it wouldn’t be shocking to see him in Houston by late summer.

Born in Pittsburgh in late September 1993, during the week Dazed and Confused hit theaters, Thornton’s trek to Triple-A has been neither dazed nor confused, but instead, informed by a laser focus to reach his major league dream.

Brushes With Dodgers

Thornton attended Charlotte, North Carolina’s Ardrey Kell High School, the same school that produced Dodgers’ starter, lefty Alex Wood, just prior to Thornton’s arrival. Thornton thrived there as a two-way player, doubling as an outfielder as well as pitcher.

During his senior year, Thornton ranked No. 385 in the nation in the 2012 class, and No. 12 in the state by Perfect Game while being the No. 10-rated player in NC by Impact Baseball.

While at Ardrey Kell, Thornton participated in a summer travel ball league (South Charlotte Panthers, ca. 2012) with current Dodgers SS Corey Seager, himself an NC prep star (Northwest Cabarrus, Concord, NC, a half-hour away). In fact, Seager’s father was the Panthers’ coach at the time.

Call to the Hill

Determined to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2 1/4 hours from Charlotte), Thornton was impressed by the campus, as well as by the Tar Heels’ baseball coaches.

At the time, Thornton reflected to scout.com his impressions on UNC: “First of all, I was very comfortable with all of the coaches. It started off with Coach (Scott) Jackson. He is very easy to talk to and very nice to me. Then I got to know Coach (Scott) Forbes and (Robert) Woodard a little better. They are just really easy to talk to because they know a lot about baseball and what they are doing.”

Happy to assist the Admissions Dept., Thornton continued, “Next, one of the most important things is that I just fell in love with Chapel Hill and the academics, because it has one of the best reputations in the country; that is very important to me. Then you have the campus, which is amazing, and then to top it off with one of the best baseball programs in the country with an amazing facility.”

Thornton got some feelers from the Mets and Reds leading up to the 2012 draft, but he was quoted at the time as saying that “it would take a lot to keep me from going to North Carolina.” Ultimately, nothing did, and his three years as a Tar Heel (where he majored in business) prompted baseballdraftreport.com to give this scouting report: “I’d take Thornton, and let his 87-92 mph (94 peak) fastball, plus upper-70s breaking ball, and average or better upper-70s changeup get regular turns in a pro starting rotation.”

Thornton, himself, gave astrosfuture.com’s Jimmy Price this “stuff update” from December 2016: “Four-seam fastball (91-95 mph), cutter (87-90), split change (77-80), curveball (77-81), and slider (79-84). For me, especially last year, the cutter was a huge pitch for me which I actually picked up last year (2015)!”

His curveball, particularly, excites Astros scouts, as this pitch reportedly possesses an exceptional spin rate even faster than that of Houston starter Collin McHugh, noted for being the owner of one of MLB’s fastest curve spin rates.

Related: McHugh: Evolution of a Renaissance Man

Athlete in Action

A thread running through Thornton’s baseball career is his pure athleticism; an athleticism that prompted his two-way high school tenure, and must have encouraged his college coach to have his prize pitcher be, in a sense, a three-way player.

In fact, in Thornton’s freshman season, coach Forbes told his new 6-foot, 175-pounder that he’d not only start, but middle-relieve, and close.

Told, at first, it might not end up being that way, it did end up being that way for Thornton. He started five mid-week games, and served as the primary weekend reliever, recording a team-high 8 saves in 2013. His 1.37 ERA, that year, was also a team best. His 12 wins set a program record.

Video: Watch interviews with Thornton and his UNC coaches, in this Tar Heel-produced video from spring, 2014:

Thornton spent the summer of ’14 playing with the Orleans Firebirds in the Cape Cod League, starting all six of his games, and compiling 29 IP, a 3-2 record, a shiny 2.79 ERA, with a tidy 5-1 K/BB ratio (25-5).

Thornton’s shocking athleticism is evident every time he throws a pitch, in a wind-up that is not only remarkable, but remarkably repeatable. In full wind-up, Thornton’s left knee actually touches his left tricep. Such limb-flailing while delivering a pitch ought to serve as an unnerving built-in distraction for batters.

This video features an ACC-produced interview (summer 2015, just prior to his draft) with Thornton as he describes his unusual delivery:

In his three years at Chapel Hill, Thornton put up these numbers: 22-12 record, with a 2.82 ERA and a 1.12 WHIP in 249 IP (only 24 of 73 games started, with one complete game shutout, and 15 saves). He nearly averaged a strikeout an inning with 245. He amassed a strong 8.86 K/9, while walking a 2.86 BB/9 rate.

Trent (who takes to the golf course when he can) was selected by Houston in the 5th round (139th overall) of the 2015 draft, and began his affiliate climb with the Astros’ short-season Tri-City ValleyCats, posting a 4-0 record, and a 3.27 ERA in 55 innings, starting 12 of 15 games.

Thornton’s 2016 was split between Advanced-A Lancaster (California League) and AA Corpus Christi. He produced this combined line: 10-5 record, 3.52 ERA in 135.2 IP, 133 H, 21 BB, 124 K, 1.4 BB/9, and an 8.2 K/9, remaining remarkably consistent with his college output.

Pass or Flail

Sometime during his pro career, though, he altered his “fleeing octopus” delivery, perhaps after an urging by Houston brass and coaches.

Thornton described this change to Price: “I used to model my pitching after (current free agent) Tim Lincecum. I felt like my arm action and body type were very similar to his (5’11”, 170 lbs). However, after about halfway through the (2016) season, I toned down my leg kick to make my delivery more repeatable and consistent.”

Indeed, according to todaysknuckleball.com‘s Bobby DeMuro, in July 2016, “His leg kick used to be significantly higher and somewhat more violent, and he’s now using less effort to get to his balance point, and move through his delivery. That likely makes him more attractive to remain as a starter long-term, as his delivery seems to be getting easier to repeat, and in turn, use less energy, pitch to pitch.”

Next Stop, Houston

“I moved through the system a little quicker than some this year, but it motivates me to continually push myself. My dream wasn’t to play minor league baseball; my dream is to play in the big leagues, so I make sure to work hard and do what needs to be done in order to keep moving up.”–Trent Thornton

Thornton (1-1, 2.60 ERA) had a rough outing in Oklahoma City, Friday, May 12, as the Grizzlies came up short against the OKC Dodgers, 5-2. In 5.1 innings, Trent gave up 6 hits, 2 walks, and 4 earned runs, but did strike out 6. Meanwhile, his offense was handcuffed by the Dodgers’ Justin Masterson (3-1, 1.91).

Related: Astros 2.0? Fresno Grizzlies Current Lineup Could Be Houston’s in ’18

Brad Kyle

Brad Kyle

Brad Ramone with (L-R) Dee Dee, Johnny, and Joey Ramone, backstage at Houston's Liberty Hall, July, 1977.

Johnny, the Ramones' influential guitarist, who passed away in 2004 at 55, was an avid baseball and New York Yankees fan since childhood. He even once ranked baseball above rock'n'roll in a personal Top 10 List!

Like Johnny, my love for rock is only equaled by my love for baseball and my hometown Houston Astros, present and past!

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Brad Kyle