Right before the 1981 season started, the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired first baseman Jason Thompson from the California Angels in exchange for catcher Ed Ott and pitcher Mickey Mahler. It was a one-sided deal, with the Pirates getting five seasons from Thompson as a starter, while Ott got injured and Mahler pitched 14.1 innings for the Angels. Thompson really had four average years in Pittsburgh and one really big season. As you may have guessed already by the title (or known from memory), that was his big year in 1982.
Thompson had two All-Star years for the Detroit Tigers in 1977-78, then his split season between Detroit and California in 1980 was his best year up to that point. He batted .288 in 138 games, with 21 homers, 90 RBIs and 83 walks. He got on base at a high clip and hit for some power. That was right before he joined the Pirates. His first season in Pittsburgh was split by the mid-season strike. He actually put up strong numbers, which are lost in his .242 batting average and the shorter season. His .899 OPS was driven by 59 walks and 15 homers in 86 games. He wasn’t actually that much better in 1982, it just looks that way because it was a full season.
Thompson had a strong April in 1982 that spilled over into the first half of May. He batted .329/.415/.671 in April, with seven homers and 19 RBIs in 18 games. Through May 15th, he was batting .383/.481/.710 in his first 29 games. From April 21st to May 9th, he had a 1.399 OPS during a 17-game hitting streak. In the 30th game of the 1982 season, he had his hitting streak snapped, as well as a 37-game consecutive on base streak that began back on September 28th of the previous season. That 1.191 OPS on May 15th was the high point of his season, but far from the last highlight.
Thompson hit .374/.477/.659 in 25 games in May, his best month of the season. He was up to 13 homers and 36 RBIs through the first 43 games.
June was a very average month for Thompson, pushed by two games. He drew 24 walks, which is quite a number for one month, but coupled with two homers and a .258 average, it dragged down the strong start. His best game of the season happened on June 15th. In a 13-3 win over the New York Mets, he had two doubles, a homer and five RBIs. His only four-hit game of the year also happened in June, so that tells you had bad the rest of the month was outside of those two games. The last day of June was also the last day that his season OPS was over the 1.000 mark. July would drag it down even more.
As we have seen in past articles highlighting a full season, there always seems to be one month that stands out from the rest. For some players it’s a huge month that made a solid season look even better. For others, it’s one really poor month that drags down a great season. Thompson’s July fit in the latter category.
As I mentioned, June 30th was the last day Thompson was over a 1.000 OPS. He dropped down to a 1.002 OPS that day, going 0-for-5 with two strikeouts. He started July with an 0-for-5 day and he ended with an 0-for-4 day. In between, it only got a little better. He batted .212/.270/.343 in 28 games, though he did make his hits count by driving in 15 runs.
Things started getting better right away in August. Sure, after the first ten games of the month, his OPS was just a few points higher than the July low, but at that point he was slightly improving on an .896 OPS. He was consistent for all of August in that regard, slowly building his season OPS up to .932 on August 31st, when he hit two homers and drove in three runs in a 7-1 win over the San Diego Padres. For the month, he hit .306/.423/.622 in 33 games (yes, 33 games in one month). He hit ten homers and drove in 25 runs.
Thompson had two marks in his sights for the final month. He was at 28 homers and 88 RBIs. He hit two homers and drove in at least 12 runs each month to that point, so both milestones seemed easily reachable. As it turned out, he had a fairly slow finish to his season, so there was a bit of sweating on reaching 100 RBIs. He hit his 30th homer on September 7th, becoming just the fifth player in team history to reach that mark (Ralph Kiner, Dick Stuart, Frank Thomas and Willie Stargell). The century mark RBI didn’t come up September 29th when he hit a two-run double. Thompson batted just once more that year before giving way to a young Eddie Vargas, so he could get some at-bats before the season ended.
The final stat line for Thompson showed that he hit .284/.391/.511 in 156 games, with 31 homers, 101 RBIs and 101 walks. He tied a career high with 87 runs scored and set a high with 32 doubles. It was interesting that he reached those marks because he struggled against left-handed pitching. He batted .230 with one homer in 152 at-bats versus southpaws. That’s compared to a .996 OPS against right-handed pitching. While he did well on the road (.814 OPS), he made his mark at home, where he had a .999 OPS in 77 games. Thompson had 47 games without a hit during the season, but only 20 games in which he didn’t reach base at least once. He finished the year with a 4.8 WAR, trailing only Bill Madlock among all Pirates.
Here are the previous articles in this series:
John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.
When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.