LONG BEACH—Few things excite Jake Thompson more than cars. “I’m a huge, huge car fanatic,” Thompson said. “That’s my passion off the field. I have a 1972 Chevelle SS my dad gave me and we fixed it up together. I go onto the Internet everyday and see if there’s any new cars that come out.
“I’m a stat rat on that stuff. You ask me any car, I’ll tell you the horsepower, I’ll tell you the gear ratio, I’ll tell you all that stuff. That’s been my passion since I was a little kid.”
Surpassing Thompson’s enthusiasm for cars is his respect for Troy Buckley, the pitching guru who mentored a Long Beach State staff that churned out the likes of major leaguers Jered Weaver, Abe Alvarez, Jason Vargas, Cesar Ramos and Drew Carpenter, all drafted within the first two rounds in a span of four years.
The chance to pitch for Buckley was part of what prompted Thompson to skip his senior year of high school and enroll at Long Beach. Buckley left for a pro job before Thompson’s freshman year, but now he’s back and Thompson is reaping the benefits. If the junior righthander has the breakout season the Dirtbags anticipate, baseball people could be eying Thompson the way he does cars.
“His stuff is a lot better than what his stats show,” Buckley said.
In two seasons, Thompson is 6-12, 5.32, including last season’s 4-7, 5.61 mark for a team that finished tied for fifth in the Big West Conference. He’ll battle sophomore Andrew Gagnon for the staff’s No. 1 slot this season.
“He’s learned a lot from his failure,” Long Beach head coach Mike Weathers said of Thompson. “You have to remember he didn’t pitch his junior year of high school, so that’s more than a year and a half without really pitching. All the sudden he’s thrown into college and starting with us on Sundays. That’s a big adjustment for anybody.
“His maturity was good as a freshman despite the record. And last year, it was a disappointing season for the team as a whole. He ended up trying to do too much. The maturity I’ve seen in him this year is he doesn’t feel like he has to do everything himself, it’s not all on him.”
Timing Is Everything
Thompson, 20, had shown up on the scouting radar when he played in the Area Code Games after his freshman season of high school. A transfer to Long Beach Wilson High, a traditional baseball power, left Thompson ineligible to play as a junior and got him thinking about other options for furthering his lifelong dream of being a professional baseball player. He’d talked to Robert Stock after Stock had skipped his senior year of high school to enroll at Southern California and began considering a similar jump.
The thought of learning from Buckley sealed Thompson’s decision to get his GED and play at the college where he’d grown up attending games and camps. Within a few months, Buckley had left to become minor league pitching coordinator for the Pirates.
Buckley’s return was put in motion when his replacement, Jon Strauss, took a job with Pepperdine over the summer.
“I was stoked,” Thompson said of his reaction upon hearing the news. “I called my mom and said ‘Buck’s back.’ I called my dad. I was calling everyone.”
Buckley’s influence is already noticeable. “It’s kind of propped our whole staff up a notch,” Weathers said.
No one has benefited more than Thompson.
“Oh my God, it’s like I’m a completely different pitcher,” Thompson said. “I feel better mechanically. I feel better mentally. I feel like I have to step up. (Buckley) changed my mentality—it’s more professional now.
“It might not have been the pitching coach, but I felt like something in my mechanics and in my pitching was missing. Scouts would come up to me and say, ‘Something’s not right.’ I’d say, ‘I know.’ “
A 91-93 mph fastball is the biggest weapon for Thompson, who also has a changeup that Buckley describes as having the potential “to be above-average at the big league level.” The slider that was inconsistent last season is improving. “He’s had really brilliant parts of games,” Weathers said. “Now he just needs to work on being more consistent and putting it together for a whole game.”
Thompson has tweaked his mechanics, but the most valuable adjustment may be in mentality and a shifting of priorities.
“He’s absolutely capable from the talent level,” Buckley said. “He’s going to have to improve his command if he’s going to move up the food chain. His biggest thing is maturity level—is he going to learn how to be a professional?”
If Thompson does that, he’ll be part of a legacy he’s reminded of each time he puts on his jersey or shows up to the practice field and encounters pros such as Weaver on hand for offseason workouts.
“They gave me Weaver’s number,” he said. “It’s on my back. It’s kind of like I’ve got live up to it. So I do feel it a little bit. I want to live up to the pitchers who have been here.”
Heather Gripp is a freelance writerbased in Los Angeles.