Sometimes a Spring Training position battle results in something pretty cool, like Tyler Matzek making the expanded Opening Day roster in 2020 and then being a huge part of two successful Braves teams. Other times, though, your team adds Tyler Thornburg to the Opening Day roster, and it’s about as big of a nothingburger as possible.
In the midst of March 2022, the Braves signed Tyler Thornburg to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal that paid him $900,000 if he made the roster. Thornburg did indeed make said roster.
What were the expectations?
Thornburg was coming off Tommy John Surgery, and had had a typical MLB relief journeyman career prior to hitting the shelf. He was really effective as a swingman in 2014 and a reliever in 2016, but was otherwise injured, ineffective, or both.
There likely weren’t any real expectations for Thornburg other than to be a reliever with the usual incredibly high period-to-period variance they’re known for. The highly-optimistic outcome was something akin to his 1.9 fWAR, 67-inning 2016, but given that Thornburg followed up that career-best effort with -0.2 fWAR over his next 49 2⁄3 innings spanning three seasons and four calendar years, the real expectation was probably something like “hope he’s healthy enough to be the last guy in the bullpen.”
The real result was that Thornburg barely got used. The most games he worked in any four-day stretch was two. He had a five-day layoff, an eight-day layoff, and an 11-day layoff, all in the first seven weeks of the season. It’s not like he was pitching bulk, either: he got more than three outs just twice in nine appearances, and faced 10 or more batters just once. The Braves seemingly forgot he existed.
Not that he was giving them any real reason to do anything else. Thornburg worked the lowest of low leverage, and through six April appearances, had a great 44 ERA- and 34 FIP-... that came with a not-so-great 114 xFIP-. When he finally had a high-leverage appearance to start his May, it went poorly due to an Ozzie Albies error; he then had two bad outings and was DFAed thereafter to make room for Dylan Lee.
Overall, as a Brave, Thornburg had a 93/66/136 line (ERA-/FIP-/xFIP-). He struck out a mediocre 21 percent of batters faced, while walking over 10 percent. Over half the contact against him was of the fly ball variety, hence the xFIP indicating that inserting him into a contest was a dangerous game of hope-you-avoid-the-homer.
Thornburg cleared waivers and was released. The Twins signed him to a minor league deal and promoted him after a few games at Triple-A. He made five relief appearances for Minnesota, all but one of which were of the multi-inning variety. But, after a terrible game on June 30, where he allowed the Guardians to tie the game on HBP-walk-walk-two-run infield error in the eighth and gave up a walkoff homer in the ninth, he was outrighted back to the minors, where he again pitched sparingly before being cut from the organization.
Overall, Thornburg finished 2022 with 0.0 fWAR in 19 innings, and an 83/109/150 line. It was the sixth time in nine career seasons that he failed to post above-replacement value.
What went right? What went wrong?
Thornburg got $900,000 for making the roster out of Spring Training, but this probably wasn’t the return-from-TJS season that he wanted to have in his age-33 campaign. The most positive thing for him was probably his .275 xwOBA-against; another good thing was that his pitch shape actually looked very solid. Unfortunately, his command was really bad (a common refrain for like every pitcher on a roster fringe), and he seemed to have an inability to get whiffs despite the good metrics on his pitches (probably due to awful command).
He also threw way too many fastballs, including even more after he went to the Twins, which was a disappointing outcome for a guy whose clear path to improvement was throwing fewer fastballs.
One of Thornburg’s best outings as a Brave came in non-memorable fashion, in a 6-3 loss to the Reds. He came in to the eighth, down by three, and allowed a double to Kyle Farmer, but then got a strikeout to end the inning. He then threw a scoreless ninth, grabbing another strikeout and allowing a single and two flyouts.
The fact that Thornburg’s single highest-WPA play as a Brave was this, where the Braves were down by four runs and the out itself was recorded on a near-homer kind of says everything you need to know about his usage, and also kind of about why his xFIP was as bad as it was.
Amusingly, here’s his worst WPA play, which had nothing to do with him, and came right before the one above. There’s not much to really pull from when it comes to Tyler Thornburg, Atlanta Brave, is what I’m saying.
Thornburg is yet another replacement level-type arm that will probably grab a Spring Training invite from someone. Whether he is somehow able to overcome his command issues and get the mileage out of his pretty good on-paper pitches is another story for his age-34 season or beyond.