When 50 of the top players in minor league baseball meet in Phoenix for today’s Futures All-Star game at 6 p.m. on ESPN2, Braves fans will recognize at least a few names.
Julio Teheran and Arodys Vizcaino, two of the Braves’ top pitching prospects, will pitch for the “World” team. Bryce Harper, last year’s No. 1 overall draft pick by the National League East-rival Washington Nationals and an outfielder for the “U.S.” team, probably rings a bell, too.
But there’s another name to take note of who has Atlanta ties and an upper-90s fastball: Tyler Thornburg, a prospect for the Milwaukee Brewers chosen from the high-A Florida State League.
Today will mark the first time Thornburg has played on television since he was a 12-year-old outfielder for the Sandy Springs All-Stars in the Southeast regional final of the Little League World Series.
He has spent much of his baseball development in relative obscurity, from Sandy Springs Little League to Riverwood High School and on to Charleston Southern.
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But he was drafted by the Brewers in the third round a year ago and has been on a speedy ascent ever since.
Thornburg is 9-1 in 15 starts this season between the Brewers’ low-A affiliate in Wisconsin and three starts for high-A Brevard County. He was named Florida State League pitcher of the week his first week in the league. After being promoted June 24, he went 2-0 with a 0.82 ERA in his first two starts for the Manatees.
So what makes Thornburg so special? Well, there’s his fastball that registers at 92 to 94 mph and reaches as high as 97 to 98 mph. And the fact that he’s only 5-foot-11, 185 pounds.
Because of his size, his velocity and his over-the-top delivery, Thornburg has drawn comparisons to San Francisco Giants ace Tim Lincecum. Thornburg chuckles at the thought of being compared to someone who has won two Cy Young awards and a World Series title in his first four years in the majors, but he was a little curious, too.
“I looked at some of his stuff and tried to throw similar to his [delivery] in [bullpen sessions] to see if it works,” Thornburg said. “Stuff he does is definitely unreal. ... With his stride and leg lift, his balance is pretty close to being perfect. You have to be so flexible to do that kind of stuff.”
As a scout told his father at one of Thornburg’s games last year, it’s because of pitchers such as Lincecum that teams are willing to take a chance on a pitcher with Thornburg’s size in an era when a lot of top pitching prospects tower over him.
Thornburg was only 160 pounds coming out of high school, and he played both outfield and pitcher in college.
“Sometimes when those kind of guys can just focus on doing one thing, they can really take off,” Brewers minor league pitching coordinator Lee Tunnell said. “I think that’s what’s happened with Tyler.”
Tunnell doesn’t buy into the Lincecum comparisons whole-heartedly.
“He has a little bit of that in there,” Tunnell said. “I think he has a little bit of Roy Oswalt in there. They’re all three similar-sized guys. He has some uniqueness also. He’s got some deception in his delivery. I don’t think hitters see the ball real well off of him.”
They certainly haven’t so far. Thornburg didn’t lose a start in his first 20 in the Brewers organization, including his 1-0 record in nine games (six starts) last year in rookie ball in Helena, Mont.
“It’s me going out there and just refusing to lose,” Thornburg said.
He didn’t take his first professional loss until Wednesday night, allowing four runs in five innings of an 11-4 loss against Clearwater, Fla.
The closest he had come before that was midway through his stint with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. He had allowed only one unearned run, but trailed 1-0 heading into the bottom of the ninth inning. Teammate Mike Walker hit a two-run walk-off homer to get him the win.
It has been that kind of ride for Thornburg, who never thought he would play in the Futures game in his first full season in the minor leagues.
“One of my friends mentioned it at the beginning of this season,” Thornburg said. “We were just joking around about it. I was like, ‘Maybe in a couple years.’”