BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Drew Thorpe entered the 2023 season ready to make his debut in professional baseball after the New York Yankees selected him in the second round of last year’s MLB draft out of Cal Poly.
In most cases, a player begins their pro career in rookie league or Class A to get accustomed to the rigors that the minor leagues present to a young player. The Yankees, however, took a different approach with Thorpe. They assigned him to advanced Class A Hudson Valley after a strong showing in spring training.
“I think I performed pretty well in spring training, and it just led into starting in High-A, and it has gone well for me thus far,” Thorpe said. “I’m just trying to go out there and do my job as best as possible.
“It was nice to begin my pro career in High-A and skip a level. I am sort of challenging myself in my first year in pro ball. You never know what to expect. I’m still staying within myself. I know what I can do, so I am sticking to that.”
Thorpe embraced the challenge by meeting or exceeding most expectations. In his first 11 starts, Thorpe had a 6-1 record and 2.34 ERA. He also held right-handed hitters to a .180 batting average.
His early success at Hudson Valley and aptitude for making quick adjustments affirm his status as the top pitching prospect in the Yankees organization.
“There was a bit of an adjustment, obviously. Hitters in pro ball definitely have a better feel for the zone and not swinging out of the zone as much, so that was one thing that I had to adapt,” Thorpe said.
“In college, you get a lot of swings and misses out of the zone, and here (in pro ball), it shortens up a little. As I move up in the system, I am sure it will shorten up even more. It is more about developing my stuff and trusting that it will result in swing and miss both in the zone and out of the zone.”
As the season progressed, Thorpe became more dominant on the mound and a formidable challenge for the opposition. By June, Thorpe was seemingly untouchable, pitching 21 consecutive scoreless innings across three starts and striking out 27 hitters in that span.
Thorpe became the first Hudson Valley pitcher since 2008 to pitch eight shutout innings in a start on June 4. He followed that up with a career-high 12 strikeouts in his next outing against Jersey Shore.
“I think the key has been sticking to my plan every week, coming into every start and continuing to develop,” Thorpe explains. “Each start under my belt helps me settle in a little bit more and get into the rhythm of everything.
“I’m feeling good based on the last couple of the starts, but I am not thinking too much about (the scoreless innings streak). I just keep pitching and working. Getting more starts and more innings in pro ball is very helpful, especially as I’m facing more hitters (in the league). We’re doing a lot of things mechanically and just trying to get better each day.”
The Hudson Valley Renegades pitching staff tops the South Atlantic League with a 3.33 ERA and suppresses contact by averaging 11.56 strikeouts per nine innings. Their efforts as a unit are strengthened by their work with Preston Claiborne, who is in his third season as a pitching coach in the Yankees organization and his first with Hudson Valley.
Claiborne, who pitched for the Yankees in 2013 and 2014, works with pitchers on coming into every outing with a plan and giving feedback on their performances on the mound.
“He gives us a lot of feedback (as a staff), and we work really well together,” Thorpe said. “He helps all of our guys, and I think that is one of the main reasons why we have been so dominant this year. It is the help that we have been getting from him and all of our coaches.
“Strikeouts are big, so it is the one thing we are looking for around here (in Hudson Valley). We always come into every start with a plan and try to execute it as best as possible. It is very individualized, and each pitcher has different stuff and different velocities, so you can’t look at each pitcher the same because we each have different stuff.”
Thorpe’s ascendence as a pro is a culmination of the work that began at Cal Poly. In college, he was a semifinalist for the Dick Howser Trophy, going 10-1 with a 2.32 ERA and a school-record 149 strikeouts in 15 starts as a junior. He was also the first player at Cal Poly to win Big West Player of the Year.
Thorpe worked diligently at the nuances of pitching during his time at Cal Poly and gradually became more adept at his craft as the years passed.
“In college, I was just trying to get bigger and stronger and work hard on the mound,” he said. “I came to the school as a two-way guy. I was going to be in the rotation my freshman year, so I stopped hitting and put my primary focus on pitching, and everything just took off from there.
“We messed around with my slider going into my junior year. I didn’t really have one during my freshman and sophomore years. I was just using the fastball and the changeup, and once I developed a slider, it was much more helpful because I now had two out pitches to work with to get guys out.”
Unlike many pitchers who use their fastball to rack up high strikeout totals, Thorpe’s specialty is an above-average changeup with late movement that works as an out pitch late in the counts. Scouts considered his changeup one of the best in last year’s draft, and its effectiveness translated to the pro game.
Thorpe also mixes in a slider that moves at both corners of the plate. Both off-speed pitches enable his mid-90s fastball to work more effectively and keep the hitter from focusing on one particular pitch.
“The fastball plays up a little bit more with my other pitches, and there will be some at-bats where I can pitch backward and use the fastball late, and I think that has been helpful as well,” Thorpe said.
“I think all three pitches work hand in hand and help me keep hitters off balance and out of rhythm. Most of the strikeouts will come off off-speed pitches, but it also depends on the hitter, and it depends on the count. It is situational.”
Last year at the trade deadline, the Yankees dealt a number of pitching prospects, such as Ken Waldichuk and Hayden Wesenski, in an attempt to make a run at the pennant before getting swept by the Astros in the 2022 ALCS.
The moves at the time appeared to come at the expense of their minor-league depth. But the Yankees received a boost this season with the performance of Thorpe in his first pro season and the recent success of Zach Messinger and Chase Hampton, the latter earning a call-up to Class AA Somerset earlier this month.
Thorpe’s breakout, along with the efforts of his counterparts, shows the confidence the Yankees have in their pitching prospects as they continue to bolster their minor league system.
“It’s been great to start in High-A and continue to develop, and it is nice that the Yankees see something in me by starting me here in pro ball,” Thorpe said. “It has been good so far. A goal for me is to keep taking these steps, so I am ready when I have a chance to go up to Double-A and then see how different things will be as I make my way through the system.”