They say waiting is the hardest part, which many a minor league baseball player might acknowledge.
But once they get that call to the majors, when the dream becomes a reality, it’s the self-imposed pressure that proves to be the real bear.
Tyler Thornburg can relate.
The former third round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers got his first taste of the major leagues in 2012, but 2013 proved to be a bit harder on the Georgia native. His goal was to make the club out of spring training, but he lost out quickly in a numbers game.
It was back to the minors, at least for a bit, and the waiting got to him. He tried some different things to speed the process – which in baseball, like many other avenues of life, never has the desired effect.
"Coming into spring training I was hoping that I could win a starting spot," he said. "Pretty early, it was pretty clear that wasn’t one of the situations that was going to happen. So, when I got sent down I started trying to develop a cutter, try to develop a two-seamer, sinker. I think throwing those honestly messed up my other pitches. I wasn’t able to be consistent with all my other pitches. Throwing a sinker really screwed with the location of my four-seam. Throwing a cutter messed with my curveball a little bit. I wasn’t able to really pitch."
Then, the rollercoaster began.
- June 5 called up as Marco Estrada was placed on the disabled list
- June 9 sent down to Nashville to make room for Jim Henderson’s return off the disabled list
- June 29 called up when outfielder Caleb Gindl was sent down to help a taxed bullpen
"Once I got an opportunity, I put so much pressure on myself to be able to take it and run with it," he said.
But he had to wait for those opportunities, too.
After being recalled for good in late June, he wound up going 17 days between relief appearances in July (though the All-Star break did fit into that window) and he didn’t make his first start of the year until July 30 against the Chicago Cubs.
"Depending on philosophy, sometimes you put them in the bullpen and you get comfortable to the field," Brewers pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. "Like what happened with Thornburg. A perfect example of a guy that came in, pitched, pitched pretty well, got confidence, I can do this. Every pitcher goes through that – is my stuff good enough to pitch here? Can I pitch here? It’s my job to get them to believe in their stuff and sometimes I believe in guys more than they believe in themselves."
Thornburg’s six-inning, shutout effort against the Cubs earned him another start on Aug. 5 against San Francisco, where he allowed one unearned run over six innings.
Through the end of the August he made one other start (another six inning outing) and five relief appearances before finally being put in the rotation in September. In his final four starts in the season’s final month, he posted a 2.16 ERA, struck out 22 in 25 innings while walking eight. Opponents hit just .214 off of him.
"Obviously he came out of the bullpen and did a nice job and he was successful and it got him confident, but what he’s doing is, is he’s pitching and he’s using his offspeed stuff early and throwing some behind in the count and it makes a world a difference when you can do that," Kranitz said.
"Hitters, what they’ll do is, they’ll sit there and look at you and they’ll eliminate pitches – he can’t do this. You can’t eliminate anything right now because he’s throwing them for strikes and when he’s doing that his fastball, I think at 93, sometimes 94, it’s by you before you know it. That’s the key. A lot of it is he’s believing in himself."
Towards the end of the season, Thornburg was asked why he was able to believe in himself, to perform that much better in the major leagues as opposed to Class AAA, where he went 0-9 with a 5.79 ERA in 15 starts for Nashville.
"I think just … mentally when you realize how much something matters," Thornburg admitted. "Up here, I think I was a little upset being in Triple A and honestly I was kicking myself a little bit too much, doing things I necessarily wouldn’t do normally as far as trying to throw different pitches, trying to develop a couple pitches and it got me into trouble a little bit.
"Up here I stuck with my three good pitches and really trying to improve upon those."
In his seven total starts with the Brewers, Thornburg tossed 43 innings (an average of 6 1/3 per outing) and allowed just seven earned runs for a tidy 1.47 ERA. His struck out 7.1 batters per nine innings and had a WHIP of 1.163.
In 11 games as a reliever, he allowed eight earned runs in 23 2/3 innings for a 3.04 ERA. His strikeouts per nine fell to 5.3.
For the year, Thornburg had a 1.9 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), a total which was second only to Kyle Lohse (3.3) for all pitchers despite the fact that he made the seventh fewest amount of appearances (18) of the 21 pitchers who saw action for the Brewers in 2013. He also finished with a 2.03 ERA and a 1.189 WHIP.
That backed up a decent end to 2012 in which he allowed three earned runs in 10 innings over his last five games (one start).
"It’s funny. I think last year in September when we were making that push, I really wasn’t doing very much," Thornburg said. "I only threw three times in September. I think this year, I don’t know what the situation would’ve been if we were still in it, if I would’ve gotten as much of an opportunity. God has a funny way of doing things, whether it’s putting you through situations like He did in Nashville, but I’m definitely blessed to have this opportunity. I wanted to take it and run with it."
He did, and hopes his production at the end of the year proved something to the people who matter – namely general manager Doug Melvin and manager Ron Roenicke.
"Honestly, I hope that I’ve put myself in a situation where I can have a starting spot," Thornburg allowed. "Granted, you never know what they’re going to do in the offseason. I really think that …"
He couldn’t bring himself to finish his thought, at least on record.
"It’s just hard to say," he concluded.
Roenicke wouldn’t get into projecting what Thornburg’s future could be in the big leagues, but did admit the right-hander has "plus" pitches that just need refinement. For the Brewers skipper, that added command could lead to deeper outings, should he remain a starter.
Melvin saw improvement as well.
"The one thing about Tyler Thornburg, that he improved on and I have to give him credit for, is we were all in fear of him being a fly-ball pitcher and giving up home runs, and he gave up one home run all year in 70 innings," he said. "He gave up four in one inning, I think, against Toronto in his first start (in 2012). I think the younger guys, they come up the second time, they feel more comfortable, they feel like they belong more."
While he prefers starting, the one thing Thornburg wants for sure is to belong – in Milwaukee, for an entire season.
"I think the first few years in professional ball are kind of tough," he said of his offseason preparation. "You don’t really know how to tailor your offseason routine, how hard to go, when to start tapering it off. As far as how long the season is, it’s been tough because the past couple years I’ve been jumping back and forth so I haven’t exactly been in a routine all year. That tends to put a little bit more stress on your arm, so I’ve had to take a little bit more time off.
"I still threw a good bit of innings this year considering I spent almost two months in the bullpen. I’m going to take my time off and then go about it really hard and try to put myself in a situation where I don’t have to worry about this bouncing back and forth again."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.