One day, perhaps, Zach Thompson will be able to diagnose the unusual circumstances that led him here. How a pitcher with a career 5.70 ERA in Triple-A proceeded to break out as a rookie for the Miami Marlins. How he prepared for this season by throwing into a net in his driveway because that was his only option during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. How his success is derived largely from a spike knuckle-curveball that he learned to throw by firing hockey pucks back-and-forth with his father and brother. How his miraculous 2021 season took the backseat in his life because he’s a new dad himself.
One day, Thompson will be able to look back and examine it all much more thoroughly. For now, though, he’s trying to do something nearly unprecedented. Playing a sport in which just making it to the major leagues is often the endgame, Thompson sees the conclusion of his baseball career, which is hopefully an ending still far off into the future, as the dawn of a new career.
One day, Thompson plans on trading in his uniform for scrubs. He wants to become a doctor.
“I’ve had a pretty good passion about it,” Thompson said. “I just enjoy being able to help people and have the opportunity to potentially help people further down in my life.”
Do a quick Google search for ‘Baseball player turned doctor’ and only two names come up: Mark Hamilton and Archie “Moonlight” Graham. Hamilton, a backup first baseman to Albert Pujols with the 2010–11 St. Louis Cardinals, was introduced to the medical field by his father, Stanley, a prominent pathologist whose career has taken him from Baltimore’s John Hopkins University and Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center to City of Hope in Los Angeles, where he currently works. Graham, whose two innings in the major leagues for the 1905 New York Giants was memorialized in the novel Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella and later in the movie Field of Dreams, went to medical school while playing baseball at the University of Maryland.
Thompson’s interest in the field, naturally, is unique. Unlike Hamilton, he does not have any close family members in the medical field. Unlike Graham, he did not go to medical school. In fact, when Thompson arrived at the University of Texas at Arlington as a freshman in 2012, he had no idea what he wanted for his career.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do going into college, and I had someone over the summer introduce me into the field of kinesiology,” said Thompson. “I had never heard about it before, and they were telling me about studying the biomechanics of the body. I took that then going into college, and I was like, ‘Wow, I actually really enjoy studying the body.’ It kind of came out of nowhere. I don’t really know, but I fell in love with it and it just kind of took off every year in college, and it’s just kind of grown ever since.”
Thompson’s interest in becoming a doctor has expanded rapidly since. He often spends his free time in ways that almost certainly no other player in Major League Baseball does.
“I usually watch a lot of surgeries, different videos to try to contain my knowledge the best I can,” Thompson said. “I have a good friend of mine back home who is a firefighter and EMT, and I talk to him quite a bit. Another buddy of mine is a doctor, and we’re just able to bounce ideas off (each other) and I’m able to listen to how they communicate. That just helps me maintain my knowledge, and that’s the biggest thing in the medical field, is just trying to maintain your knowledge and continue to learn.”
When the pandemic canceled the 2020 Minor League season, Thompson opted to stretch his hobby of watching surgeries and medical videos even further. He spent the lost baseball season taking two classes to finish up his prerequisites for Physician Assistant school. He continued to talk with friends and doctors to glean advice on his path to eventually reach the medical field. Baseball was an unknown but his medical interests only seemed to crystallize on emergency medicine, cardiology and neurology.
All the while, Thompson still had his baseball career to mull over. A fifth-round pick by the Chicago White Sox in the 2014 draft, the six-foot-seven right-hander had climbed as high as Triple-A Charlotte. However, he was not invited to the South Siders’ Alternate Training Site and on November 2, he opted for free agency. Just three weeks later, the Marlins signed him to a minor league contract with an invitation for Spring Training. The timing of the deal was significant; he had peace of mind that he was taken care of even though his only baseball was throwing into a net in his driveway.
“Going into the fall and winter of 2020, I was not really sure what was going to happen,” said Thompson. “Obviously, the Marlins, I guess, had seen me before and took a chance on me, so that was really nice to have and comfortable going into the winter, being able to focus and get ready for 2021. That took a lot of stress off and allowed me to really work and focus on my craft.”
When Thompson reported to Jacksonville to begin the 2021 season with the Jumbo Shrimp, he was doing so off a 2019 campaign that saw him collect a 5.50 ERA in 70.1 innings over 49 games with Charlotte. The results early on with Jacksonville weren’t necessarily pretty; Thompson registered a 6.60 ERA in eight games covering 15.0 innings. Of the 22 hits he surrendered, four were for home runs. But Miami, needing a pitcher among a tidal wave of injuries, noticed something unusual; though Thompson was getting hit hard, he had also struck out a whopping 21 batters while walking only two. His spike knuckle-curveball seemed better than ever and his cutter was flashing elite.
On June 5, the Marlins selected Thompson’s contract and added him to the major league roster. He never returned to Jacksonville.
Thompson, who had not started a game since 2017 with High-A Winston-Salem, was initially thrust into a starting role. The pitcher who struggled so mightily in Triple-A excelled, posting a 3.24 ERA in 26 games, 14 of those starts, with Miami. Opponents hit just .186 off his cutter, the eighth-best in baseball. Thompson ranked fifth in wOBA allowed against his cutter (.236), with the pitch placing seventh in cutter run value at -11. Meanwhile, opposing hitters batted just .213 with a .254 wOBA against the 28-year-old’s spike knuckle-curveball. In all, Thompson placed in the sport’s 82nd percentile in Hard Hit Percentage.
Nothing about Thompson’s journey here has been routine. What more can any examination bring this? A pitcher whose favorite pitch is derived from tossing hockey pucks is forced to prep for a season throwing into a net because of a pandemic. A pitcher who struggles in Triple-A twice, goes to the major leagues moreso out of necessity than merit, starts for the first time in four years and then inexplicably turns in an outstanding campaign. A pitcher who does this all while aiming for something higher, to help others as a doctor.
Perhaps the only other way to explain Zach Thompson is this: maybe he learned that nothing is routine for him because he has no routine. In the midst of all this, taking classes, devouring medical videos and advice to become a doctor and stunning the baseball world, is the most important job of all: a new dad. He and his wife Ashlyn welcomed baby Madelyn into the world on June 19, 2020.
“That’s the most amazing experience you can ever have,” Thompson said. “Just seeing her for the first time, and being able to take care of her on a daily basis, it’s something that I can never really describe.
“Trying to balance that was definitely a unique experience to start, kind of different trying to find a routine and even now it’s definitely still even difficult trying to find a routine. I’m starting to really grow into the idea and the concept of that there really is no routine, and that is my routine. You never really know when your wakeup call is going to be, you just have to take it day-by-day, and that honestly takes my mind off of things a little bit. Sometimes, you need to kind of escape, and that is my escape. She’s the best and being able to be around her. I don’t really need anything else.”