Zack Thompson could have started a professional baseball career after a remarkable four-year career at Wapahani High in Indiana during the summer of 2016.
The Tampa Bay Rays drafted Thompson, a left-handed pitcher, in the 11th round of the 2016 MLB draft, but he bypassed the opportunity and attended the University of Kentucky instead.
Thompson is once again eligible for the draft, which occurs in June, and will likely hear his name called higher than he did three years ago. MLB.com ranks Thompson as the 15th-best draft prospect, and Baseball America pegs him as the No. 6 college player in the 2019 draft class.
Both publications have Thompson as the second-best college arm behind Duke lefty Graeme Stinson. He figures to at least be a No. 3 starter in the major leagues one day.
“I was betting on myself, and it’s starting to pay off,” he said. “I’ve had life experiences, made new friends, have played in the SEC for a couple years and get to train at Kentucky at this awesome stadium. It’s kind of hard to beat in comparison to sitting in rookie ball or something like that.”
Chad Green is the highest draft pick in the Wildcats’ history. The Milwaukee Brewers drafted the switch-hitting outfielder eighth overall in 1996.
Thompson will rival Green’s mark if he performs up to expectations and remains healthy.
“That would be awesome to surpass him,” Thompson said. “That is what every college and high school player is striving to do is go as early as possible in the draft.”
Thompson is a 6-foot-3, 225-pound hurler who has a four-pitch mix, featuring a fastball, slider, curveball and changeup. His fastball sits in the low-90s while occasionally touching 96 mph.
His slider is his best secondary pitch. It sits in the low-80s and generates a high spin rate. His curveball features more depth than power, while his changeup is a respectable offering.
He has a clean delivery and throws from a high three-quarter arm slot.
“My biggest strength is my competitiveness,” Thompson said. “You have to go out there and compete knowing that you might not have you’re A-game or command of every pitch, every time.”
In 20 games as a freshman at Kentucky in 2017, Thompson posted an 8-3 record with a 3.45 ERA, 96 strikeouts and 38 walks in 75 2/3 innings.
He worked predominantly as a starter again last season but battled a strain in his left elbow, which kept him out of action for about two months. He finished the season with a 2-1 record, 4.94 ERA, 42 strikeouts and 20 walks in 31 innings (nine games).
Thompson showed his potential briefly during the summer when he competed with the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team. He made three appearances and allowed zero runs while striking out seven batters and surrendering five walks in 8 2/3 innings.
He pitched in two games for the Brewster Whitecaps in the Cape Cod League before joining Team USA, allowing two runs, five hits and three walks while striking out four in 5 2/3 innings.
In his first two years at Kentucky, Thompson said he’s developed “from a thrower to a pitcher.” He credits his coaches and teammates, along with a modification in his mindset, for the change.
Thompson hopes to build on his first two seasons by throwing more strikes and attacking batters with his fastball.
“One goal we set was throwing 80 percent of fastball for strikes because that’ll really set up my other pitches and give me a chance to compete a lot more,” he said. “Winning the first three pitches in the at-bat is important to stay ahead and cut down on my walks.”
Thompson will have a plethora of professional scouts at each one of his starts this spring as major league teams prepare for the draft. He’s thought back to his senior year of high school baseball when he dealt with a similar situation and hopes to learn from that experience as he enters his junior season at Kentucky, he said.
“The hardest part in high school was trying to enjoy the moment,” he said. “I got too caught up in that in high school and thinking about the draft and the rankings. You just have to put it to the side and let your work speak for itself and enjoy your time playing baseball.”
(Photo courtesy of University of Kentucky athletics)
Dan Zielinski III has covered the MLB draft for four years. He’s interviewed 133 of the top draft prospects in that period, including three No. 1 overall picks. Multiple publications, including Baseball America, USA Today, Bleacher Report and MLB Trade Rumors, have quoted his work, while he’s appeared on radio stationsas a “MLB draft expert.”