Left-handed pitcher Tommy Henry joined the Arizona Diamondbacks after the team selected him 74th overall in the 2019 Draft. Henry was in the middle of a college World Series run that saw Michigan fall one game short of a championship despite his best efforts. The D-backs took him as a lefty with good pitching acumen and the potential for an average heater and two above-average to plus secondary offerings in a slider and change-up. On his best days, he can command four average or better pitches between a low 90s fastball (91-95), curveball, slider, and change-up.
Fast-forward three seasons later and Henry is banging on the door for a Major League opportunity. After the COVID pandemic wiped out a potential development year that would have likely been a High A assignment, the D-backs still elected to give him the challenge of pitching in AA Amarillo. The assignment was notable, as higher ceiling arms such as Ryne Nelson and Drey Jameson opened up the year with High A Hillsboro instead. The level proved to be quite challenging for Henry, as the combination of wind, short-distance corners, and the elevation made pitching at Hodgetown very difficult. Henry had very mixed results with Amarillo, making 23 starts and pitching to a 5.21 ERA/5.29 FIP in 115 2⁄3 IP.
Without the proper run environment context, that ERA and FIP number seems rather bad so we needed to take a more in-depth approach to gauge his performance. Henry didn’t seem to have too many issues missing bats, as he put up a 27.4% strikeout rate and 14.4% swinging strike rate at the level. The downside was Henry put too many runners on base with a 10.8% walk rate, which is problematic in a homer-happy park and league environment. Henry surrendered 24 home runs in the 2021 season, which combined with the walk issues resulted in a bloated ERA and FIP.
Coming off a season where Henry more or less treaded water in a nasty run environment, it was important that he put together a solid Spring to climb the organizational ladder. His first start on March 17th was very impressive, as he allowed just a solo home run over 4 innings with only 1 walk and 4 strikeouts against mostly minor league hitters. He made two more appearances last Spring, pitching 7 innings with just that 1 run allowed with 7 strikeouts and 2 walks. His performance likely left a good impression on the organization, who decided to send him to AAA Reno to open up the season.
Despite the very unique challenges that Reno provides to pitchers, which is at an even higher elevation than Amarillo and a wind tunnel in right-center that can take any fly ball in that direction out of the park, Henry has been able to hold his own. In 15 starts for the Aces, Henry has a 3.28 ERA/4.37 FIP over 79 2⁄3 innings. Henry’s strikeout rate dropped to 21.1% while his walk rate stayed relatively the same as last year at 10.4%. On the surface his Reno numbers for the season don’t look that impressive, but his strikeout and walk rates don’t explain the improvements.
With a 6% drop in K-BB%, how is Henry so much better at preventing runs? The first is Henry has changed from a neutral to ground ball leaning pitcher. His ground ball rate has jumped from 39.7% to 48.2%, with much of the change coming from a 5.6% decrease in line drive rate. Fewer line drives and fly balls means that more batted balls are likely to become outs than hits, as opposing hitters have produced a .286 average on balls put into play. While his strikeout and walk rates for the season aren’t impressive, an improvement in batted ball outcomes is very encouraging for a guy who’s ceiling is a #4/5 starter.
With the Diamondbacks in need for a capable starter next week to join the rotation, Henry is putting together an impressive string of performances. Over his last seven starts, dating back to May 26th, he has pitched to a 2.06 ERA/3.12 FIP in 43 2⁄3 innings. In five of those starts, Henry has pitched at least 6 full innings. Henry’s strikeout rate over that stretch is a solid 23.8% against a rock solid walk rate of 5.8%. In Reno, it’s essential for pitchers to limit free passes to minimize the amount of damage opposing lineups can do. In this 7-start stretch, hitters aren’t hitting much either with a .199 batting average against. The low average is buoyed by a .261 balls in play average, which probably isn’t sustainable in that run environment, but it isn’t too much of a dip compared to his overall season BABIP.
When looking at all Reno pitchers, you want to look at home and road splits to see if the pitcher is able to handle the various environment. Henry’s home splits are very impressive, as the lefty has pitched to a 3.40 ERA in 9 starts at Greater Nevada Fielder with the peripherals to back it up. In 50 1⁄3 IP, Henry has a 49/17 strikeout to walk ratio while opponents are hitting only .223 against him. His road ERA of 3.07 is better, but the underlying peripherals are worse with a 22/18 K/BB in 29 1⁄3 IP and opponents are hitting .243. Usually the home/road splits tend go in the opposite direction, but seeing that he’s performing well in one of the most challenging environments in the Minor Leagues is still an encouraging sign.
The D-backs will need a starter to pitch either on Monday or Tuesday in a home series against the San Francisco Giants. Henry’s last start was Wednesday, which means he could pitch Monday on the normal 4 days rest, or get an extra day to prepare and go on Tuesday without having to risk him pitching in front of a holiday crowd. With the need for the team to develop starting pitching to carry themselves over the next couple years, now is a good time to give a pitcher performing well in Reno a chance to stick in the MLB rotation.