A look inside the ‘Closer Mentality’ with Zack Thornton

Closer.  Noun. A relief pitcher that specializes in finishing games.

The dictionary definition certainly tells us what a closer is, but isn’t there more to the position than that?

Closers are often considered the biggest characters in baseball, with exaggerated, larger than life personalities. The San Francisco Giants have Brian Wilson, whose over-the-top personality and thick, black beard has attracted many fans. The New York Yankees have Mariano Rivera – the MLB’s leader in saves and games finished – who has been described as having the cool efficiency of an assassin.

But what makes a closer tick? How do they develop these personalities? What makes a closer more than the dictionary definition?

Perhaps Zack Thornton, closer for the Stockton Ports, could help us answer these questions.

Thornton joined the Ports after playing for the Burlington Bees and Midland Rock Hounds last season. He has played in six games this season as of April 23, pitching seven innings and achieving 11 strike outs and two saves.

We recently sat down with Zack in an attempt to understand the closer mentality.

Thornton pitching for the Ports Opening Weekend 2012. Photo Credit Sean Kahler.

Stockton Ports: You just recently moved to the Ports. How is the California League? How are you adjusting?

Zack Thornton: It’s different. It’s known that it’s a hitter’s league, so you just have to keep throwing quality strikes down the zone, get people to roll over, and hit it out on the ground and leave it up in the air.

PORTS: How does the offensive environment differ from Burlington and Texas?

THORNTON: It’s different, and you try not to think about it. Like I said, you’re just trying to make quality pitches to get outs and keep the ball on the ground, especially for me – I’m a sinker baller, trying to keep the ball at the bottom of the zone to induce a ground ball. It’s known that this league is a hitter’s league, and you just have to deal with it.

PORTS: My next question actually has to do with that. You keep saying that this is a hitter’s league. Is there anything else you have to do to prepare for or deal with that?

THORNTON: No. I think it’s just about getting ahead of hitters, keeping the ball down, and mixing speeds. Whether you’re in the big leagues or rookie ball, it’s all the same thing. You just have to execute pitches and hit guys out.

PORTS: Were you trained to be a closer? How did you become a closer?

THORNTON: It wasn’t my choice, it came from up top, but in college I was a starter and last year I was actually a long guy/short inning guy. The mentality is a little different, there’s probably a little more adrenaline, but you just have to make pitches – just like you were a starter.

PORTS: Have you had any difficulty adjusting to it?

THORNTON: In the beginning, the first couple times, my adrenaline was a little too high and I had to take it down a notch. I’m working on it, slowly getting to where that median is so I can focus on just executing pitches.

PORTS: Is there any major league closer that you would compare yourself to, like Brian Wilson or Mariano Rivera?

THORNTON: I would say…Well, you don’t see a lot of guys that throw like I do – a low, three-quarter slinger that’s a sinker baller. I’ve also noticed that I’m one of the few that pitch out of a windup as a closer. It’s where I feel most comfortable. For the most part I can’t really say that I throw like any big league closer.

PORTS: So you’re not trying to pattern yourself after anyone else.

THORNTON: Just trying to make my own name for myself.

PORTS: Closers have kind of developed a reputation as larger-than-life characters. Are you working on any specific ‘style’ for yourself?

THORNTON: No. the guys around the clubhouse call me Bozo the clown because I have big feet and an open, goofy personality. Besides that, no, I’m just trying to be myself out there, just be loose. That’s the kind of guy I am. I’m loose and like to have fun.

PORTS: What’s your entrance music and why?

THORNTON: I chose ‘Here comes the Boom’ by Nelly. It’s a song that I heard from Friday Night Lights, and it just gets me juiced – especially for the end of the game. It’s different from what closers usually use, it’s not hard rock, but I wanted to incorporate myself with the music. I think it feels perfect.

PORTS: Pitchers are generally on rotation and they can rest between games. As a closer, you can potentially be called in for every single game. How do you deal with that?

THORNTON: You have to keep yourself and your body maintained, get your sleep, do your stuff in the weight room and keeping your body ready. Like you said, you can throw every day, but there are also times where you don’t throw for three or four days because you’re behind. You just have to keep plugging away in practice. If you don’t throw every day, just go light. Just be ready to throw by the ninth inning.

PORTS: Is there anything in particular the pitching staff is working with you on?

Photo Credit Sean Kahler.

THORNTON: They just tell me to go out and do what I do. There are certain keys I’ve been working on in the past that I have to keep noticing and make sure I’m doing them correctly, but for the most part is just going out there, getting saves, and getting people out.

PORTS: What’s your best pitch?

THORNTON: I’d have to say my fastball. It’s a heavy sinker. Some days when it’s not hot, I’ll go to my slider, which is my secondary…but for the most part, I attack with my fastball. If they’re on that, I’ll go to my slider, but my fastball is my best pitch.

PORTS: Is there anything in particular that you think about when you pitch? What do you take into consideration? What goes through your mind?

THORNTON: Truthfully, when I’m out there, I don’t think about anything. I just go out there and pitch. Distractions…I discard them. There’s just me and the mound and the glove in front of me.  Pretend there’s no surroundings out there, just me and the glove, pounding strike one and getting after it. There’s really nothing else that I focus on.

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