Thompson hits a walk-off, pinch-hit home run to help the Dodgers defeat the Mets on May 10 at Dodger Stadium. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
By Rowan Kavner
FOX Sports MLB Writer
Every day, at one point or another, it hits Trayce Thompson how grateful he is.
Not just to be with the Dodgers again, and not just to be playing the way he is now — hitting 40% better than league average — but also to the people who believed in him, the ones who helped him see the light at the end of the tunnel when a promising start to his career got derailed.
“I almost needed to hit rock bottom,” Thompson said, “so I could re-find myself.”
It’s not that Thompson ever doubted his abilities, but going to nine franchises in a four-year period can impact a player’s psyche.
Five years after his first stint with the Dodgers, the Southern California native appears at ease back in Los Angeles. He is no longer bouncing from team to team. At 31 years old, he is playing the most consistent baseball of his career while carving a role on a Dodgers club that has already secured its 10th straight trip to the postseason.
“When you’re comfortable, you play better,” Thompson said.
On Oct. 1, 2017, Thompson took the final swing of his first act as a Dodger. The next three years were a roller coaster. He had a .117 batting average between the Athletics and White Sox in 2018 and didn’t get another major-league at-bat until Sept. 14, 2021.
Through all the obstacles, his former teammates rallied in his corner.
Shortstop Corey Seager checked Thompson’s Triple-A box scores nightly, keeping an eye on his old Dodgers roommate. Catcher Austin Barnes worked out with Thompson in the offseason, reminding the outfielder how good he was.
“Just to get that support from my peers, those guys are like my brothers,” Thompson said. “It means a lot. There’s so many people in my corner that I’m very grateful for.”
Joc Pederson, another former teammate and roommate of Thompson’s, went a step further.
The two developed a bond dating back a decade. Thompson was drafted by the White Sox in the second round in 2009 out of Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Southern California. A year later, the Dodgers selected Pederson out of Palo Alto High School in Northern California. The teams share a spring training facility, and a friendship began to form. Thompson and Pederson lived together after Thompson was traded to the Dodgers in 2016 and remained tight after Thompson’s career took a winding turn away from L.A.
“We talk all the time — he was in my wedding — just about different stuff, mental stuff, physical and just continuing to grow,” Pederson said. “I’ve worked with some of the same people that I think have been helpful to him.”
One of those people was Marlon Byrd. At the request of Pederson, Thompson hit with the former major-leaguer this offseason.
“I love the way [Byrd] talks about the swing,” Pederson said. “I’ve talked to Trayce about the swing for so long. It was very on-cue with similar stuff, the simplicity, how he enjoys talking about his own swing and other swings. I was like, ‘You need to go hit with him,’ but he didn’t listen to me for a while.”
What gave him the push?
“I told him you need to come meet me down here and do this,” Pederson said emphatically. “It was, I guess, very helpful.”
It was not the first time Pederson helped Thompson find the path out of rock bottom.
Matt Martin, an infield coordinator with the Dodgers in 2010, was infatuated with Pederson’s swing. He loved how loose and natural it looked. He told the young outfielder after the Dodgers took him in the 11th round that the swing reminded him of Robinson Cano’s.
“He just kind of shrugged it off,” Martin recalled.
But Pederson didn’t forget Martin’s belief, particularly when things started turning south five years later.
The outfielder was mired in a 5-for-54 slump early in the second half of his 2015 All-Star season. In late August, the Dodgers were traveling to Cincinnati, and the Detroit Tigers were playing a makeup game against the Reds the day before. Martin, who was then on Brad Ausmus’ Tigers staff, texted Pederson asking to meet up.
“I go over there, I’m like, ‘Look, man, I know you’re struggling. I know everybody is in your ear, most of them being well-intentioned, but two weeks later, you’re going to be using the wrong end of the bat because you’re getting so much information,'” Martin recalled. “He had so many well-intentioned people … but you’re getting all this clutter in there from everywhere.”
Martin, who has spent time as an infield and hitting coach in five organizations and is now the special assistant to Phillies director of player development Preston Mattingly, wanted Pederson to focus more on the mental side than on his mechanics. He encourages hitters he works with to find more stillness, to work on their starting point, to “attack through a calmness.” He uses examples, such as the way a cheetah sprints through the wild.
He also builds a distinctive vocabulary with his players, including wanting to see their “soup,” an idea that stems from an offseason minicamp a decade ago. Martin recalled the Dodgers inviting an aikido martial arts master and his apprentices to talk to the group. They told the players to envision hot soup on their shoulders or their head as they approached a movement, an idea that stuck with Martin, who also believes in “the soup in your mind being still.”
“I would always use the example of Olympic sprinters,” Martin said. “If you’re showing them close up and you see them, their face and on top of their shoulders, you see this relaxation. You see their cheeks just moving in the wind. It’s like, ‘Man, he’s not running.’ Then the camera pans back, and you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s so violent and explosive,’ but they’re so efficient with their movement.”
Martin left a mark on Pederson, and he thought the coach could do the same for Thompson when his friend was designated for assignment in 2018.
“If he’s your guy,” Martin told Pederson, “he’s my guy.”
At the time, Thompson thought his issues were primarily mechanical. He stayed home in Orange County rather than visiting Martin in L.A. But a year later, after Thompson was released by Cleveland, Martin was living close by while working with the Angels. Thompson’s career was on the brink. He was ready for help.
“The results start not coming — box-score results — you start trying to do things,” Martin said. “Trayce no longer became himself. Then when you’re getting DFA’d, it’s like being in quicksand, you’re fighting, fighting, fighting, sinking deeper and deeper.”
Martin began working with Thompson, first on changing his perspective, then on swinging and lifting weights.
“It’s all about our starting point, the mind, being in a better position where everything is connected — off the field, on the field, weights, in the box, in the field — anything we do,” Martin said.
After the season, Thompson visited Martin in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas, to continue working with him. His rhythm started to return. Before the 2020 season began, Martin tried to convince everyone he knew to “sign this dude.”
Eventually, the Diamondbacks did. Thompson went 9-for-26 with four homers in spring training. Then the pandemic hit. A year later, Thompson was traded to Chicago. In mid-September, Jason Heyward went on the concussion list. Thompson took off in Chicago, slugging .714 with four homers in 15 games to close out the season.
It didn’t lead to a cemented role early in 2022 — Thompson bounced from San Diego to Detroit to Los Angeles — but his soup looked better.
“Even now,” Martin said, “things are being made more clear for him.”
Trayce Thompson celebrates a three-run home run against the Colorado Rockies on July 4 at Dodger Stadium. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Thompson ended his first major-league season in 2015 posting a 147 OPS+ with the White Sox, meaning his on-base-plus-slugging percentage was 47% higher than that of the average MLB hitter. The start to his Dodgers career began just as auspiciously.
Manning the outfield and batting in the middle of the Dodgers’ order, Thompson sported an OPS over .800 through his first 64 games in 2016. He did so despite dealing with irritation in his back. But the pain became more significant, and his numbers began to dip.
An X-ray would reveal fractures of his vertebrae, ending his 2016 season after 80 games. He wasn’t able to do much that offseason. A year later, Thompson bounced up and down between the majors and Triple-A. He ended the 2017 season with a .122/.218/.265 slash line for the Dodgers, unable to recapture his previous form.
“But it made me who I am today,” Thompson said. “It made me a lot stronger.”
After Thompson hit “rock bottom,” Martin helped shape his mind; Shawn Wooten helped shape his swing.
Wooten was the Dodgers’ Triple-A hitting coach while Thompson dealt with his tribulations in 2017. The two meshed quickly, despite Thompson’s struggles.
“I sat there and was honest with him,” Wooten said. “I wasn’t trying to blow smoke up where it didn’t need to be, and I wasn’t telling him, ‘Dude, you’re in Triple-A, but you’re the best. You should be in the big leagues.’ I was like, ‘At this point, honestly, this is a team that’s wanting to win.'”
Thompson seemed to appreciate the sincerity. Wooten was willing to do whatever Thompson needed, whether that meant taking a phone call late at night or showing up early to the field to put in extra work.
“When you’re not doing well and you start to struggle, especially when you feel like you should be in the big leagues and you’re in Triple-A and something’s going off in your swing and you just might not know it, then it becomes mental,” Wooten said. “Then it’s a double-whammy. That’s when you’re in a tough place.”
That’s where Thompson found himself a year later.
He didn’t offer any excuses for his lack of production in 2017. He recorded three hits in his last 29 at-bats for the Dodgers. He was designated for assignment in March 2018, then claimed twice in a three-day span — first by the Yankees, then by the Athletics, who DFA’d him again two weeks later. The White Sox traded for him on April 19. They DFA’d him two months later and sent him outright to Triple-A.
Cleveland signed Thompson in December 2018, but he never played for the big-league club and was released in August 2019.
“Being able to go through adversity, especially in this game, it’s inevitable,” Thompson said. “So I feel like it definitely strengthened me in a way.”
Thompson’s 2020 season began promisingly at spring training with the Diamondbacks, but the pandemic prevented him from building on that momentum, as he spent the year at Arizona’s alternate training site. A year later, the Cubs gave him a mid-September opportunity back in the big leagues.
By then, he was in a better place mentally and physically. He stayed in touch with Wooten, who became an Angels assistant hitting coach under Ausmus in 2019 before returning home to Minnesota, where he now lives with his three kids and runs a baseball academy. Thompson visits in the offseason.
“It’s awesome to have a very athletic, big-levered guy, but those guys move a little different,” Wooten said. “To get everything lined up and make sure it all works, especially with the longer legs that they stay underneath your shoulders, is probably the hardest thing to do. The ones that can do it are electric, and the ball goes really far, but they do get out of whack.”
To combat that, Wooten watches video and adds a physical or mental cue for players where he sees fit. He doesn’t like to offer input unless he has the video. This year, there’s not much needed.
“It’s fun to watch,” Wooten said. “I’m happy for him because a lot of people don’t realize what he’s gone through. If you even look at last year, he got called up to the big leagues in September and did really well, hit right around .300, had 30-something at-bats, hit four home runs and got designated, and nobody wanted to give him a big-league job. I think in some ways that fuels him, too. He knows he can play.”
On June 19, a rib fracture forced Mookie Betts to the injured list. Kevin Pillar was supposed to give the Dodgers additional help against lefties, but he’d fractured his shoulder earlier that month. With their depth tested, the Dodgers sought immediate outfield help.
At Triple-A, Thompson was back to mashing. His year had begun in San Diego, where he turned a minor-league invite to spring training into another major-league opportunity after blasting nine homers in 16 games at Triple-A El Paso. But he went 1-for-14 in six games with the Padres before getting DFA’d.
The Tigers signed him, and he built on his Triple-A success, slashing .299/.352/.639 with eight homers in 25 games with the Toledo Mud Hens. He dismantled left-handed pitching, going 9-for-23 with four homers in a small sample. He fit the need for Dodgers general manager Brandon Gomes.
“Obviously, he was performing really well in Triple-A, so it was like, ‘OK, let’s see if they’re open to moving him if they’re not giving him an opportunity to go be a big-league player,'” Gomes said.
On June 20, the Dodgers acquired Thompson for cash. He went straight to the big-league club on June 21 and hasn’t looked back, slashing .275/.364/.538 (a 143 OPS+) with nine homers in 60 games.
“This game’s crazy,” said Pederson, who was an All-Star in San Francisco this year. “Being in the big leagues and struggling is extremely frustrating. Being in the big leagues and then being in the minor leagues — when you know you’re capable of being in the big leagues — for multiple years, it takes a very, very mentally strong person to be able to persevere through a lot of that.”
Thompson’s body of work is becoming significant. He went 9-for-28 (.321) in his first 10 games with L.A. Even after Betts returned, Thompson’s production made him impossible to dispense. Plus, two days after Betts returned to the lineup on July 3, Chris Taylor went to the injured list due to a foot fracture. Injuries provided Thompson opportunities, and he didn’t let them go to waste.
In limited playing time, he posted a .937 OPS in July and a 1.057 OPS in August.
“I feel like I’ve raised my floor,” Thompson said. “When I’m searching or struggling, I’m still able to go out there and have somewhat consistent at-bats.”
Of course, it’s not all perfect. Thompson thinks he’s striking out too often — his 37.5% strikeout rate is the highest among Dodgers with at least 100 plate appearances this year — and his significant reverse splits (1.060 OPS vs. right-handed pitchers, .652 OPS vs. lefties) are difficult to explain. But the Dodgers expect those to level out, and Thompson is working with the team’s hitting coaches to get in better position against lefties, particularly against fastballs. He has a .386 batting average against fastballs from righties; .194 against lefties.
But his overall production has remained steady, leading to a longer leash and more opportunities. Thompson is one of just 29 major-leaguers with an OPS over .850 in at least 150 plate appearances this season. And while the sample is small, defensive metrics indicate that he has been a very good outfielder as well.
The teammates who saw him back in 2017 are particularly thrilled for him.
“For him to get this opportunity and run with it and really have a huge runway and earn that runway has been really cool to see,” Clayton Kershaw said. “Personally, I consider him a really good friend. I’m really happy for him because he’s such a hard worker, does everything the right way. I hope it sticks. He’s getting some big hits for us right now, playing great baseball, and I hope that continues.”
On a team littered with All-Stars, Thompson has finally solidified a role as a major-leaguer. Where that will lead is yet to be determined in an outfield that includes Taylor, Cody Bellinger and Joey Gallo all jockeying for playing time alongside Betts.
But Thompson believes that he’s just scratching the surface. That his best baseball is ahead. That his soup is still.
“I knew, deep down, I could do this,” he said.
Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and NL West for FOX Sports. He previously was the Dodgers’ editor of digital and print publications. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.
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Source: FOX Sports