This season didn’t go like most seasons. The Cardinals were terrible. I stopped writing here very much, with nothing after the blog anniversary. However, some things must go on and that includes the Exit Interview series! Now in its 12th year, it’s our look back at each player that made an appearance in a game for the St. Louis Cardinals. We’re approaching it a little different this season, a little more literary and a little less statistical, but hopefully you enjoy it just the same. As always, I am grateful that cardinalsgifs has agreed to use his talent for the header image!
Player: Zack Thompson
Stats: 5-7, 25 G, 66.1 IP, 69 H, 8 HR, 25 BB, 72 K, 4.48 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 1.417 WHIP, 0.6 bWAR
Statcast: 6.9% barrel, 35.6% sweet spot, 112.5 max exit velocity, .329 wOBA, .328 xwOBA, 25.1% K, 8.7% BB
The use of Thompson this year was more baffling than almost any player in recent memory and that is saying a lot given how the Cardinals have treated some folks the last few years. After a successful 2022 as a lefty reliever, a pitcher that was reliable for multiple innings out of the bullpen, he started 2023 in that role. In his first eight outings, he didn’t allow a run and had 14 strikeouts in 9.1 innings. He hit a rough patch on the disastrous West Coast trip to end April but it didn’t seem like anything more than the normal struggles a relief pitcher might find.
That’s when the Cardinals decided to send him to Memphis. To become a starter.
Now obviously starting was in Thompson’s background. He’d done it his entire career until his major league promotion. Stretching out someone to be a starter, though, is something that typically happens in the winter. There was no indication that he came to camp thinking he might be a starter or that the club had asked him to prepare to be one. Couple that with the fact that they were taking out one of the reliable bullpen pieces at a time when they needed all the help they could get and it seemed really strange.
To say that the experiment didn’t go well is like saying Adam Wainwright has trouble passing up a BBQ joint. Thompson pitched in 11 games at Memphis, starting nine, and put up a 8.65 ERA. AAA batters hit .311 off of him. He never made it past through the fifth inning in any of his starts. It truly looked like the finagling had broken a promising asset.
He spent some time in St. Louis in July, looking fairly good except for a meltdown against the Cubs. With so many arms shipped out at the deadline, he return at the end of July for good and then another twist happened. From August 6 until the end of the season, he made nine starts and threw four innings against the Royals in another start when Wainwright gave up eight in the first. He had a 4.38 ERA in that span, which was significantly better than his time in Memphis, and struck out 51 in 49.1 innings. He even went seven innings against the Pirates, limiting them to three runs. The contrast between this and what Thompson had been doing as a starter was strong and it even has him in contention for starts at the back of the rotation in 2024.
Did the front office know this was going to happen? Did they know the Memphis growing pains would pay off in major league success? I doubt they saw it happening like this. I imagine they thought he’d steadily improve at Memphis and be in the mix in 2024. Indeed, that’s what they said when they sent him down to start May, that he was preparing for 2024. (Something that also didn’t go over well with the fan base, given that it looked like the club was giving up on ’23 after a month. In hindsight, they might has well have.) I would think the FO would call this a successful gamble but it sure took a while to get there.
What’s in store for 2024: As noted, Thompson will be in the mix for spot starts and the fifth starter spot should injury or ineffectiveness open it up. What they will do with him in the meantime is an interesting question. There’s an argument for him to regularly start at Memphis and that’s probably what would happen, but the bullpen could use some good arms as well.