TORONTO – Josh Thole is seeing things clearly now, and it has nothing to do with the corrective laser eye surgery he had last October.
No, things really came into focus for the backup Toronto Blue Jays catcher over the winter, when he reflected on what went wrong during a 2013 season so bad, he couldn’t even take playing time away from J.P. Arencibia. In batting .175 with an OPS of .497, he had turned away from what had made him a respectable big-league starter as recently as 2011, when he posted an OPS of .690.
The brutal self-assessment? “I was so non-competitive in the box, you could have saved the pitcher pitches and saved everybody the headache and put an out on the board.”
"I was trying to hit homers, trying to do damage," Thole explains. "Playing once every fifth day, you’re trying to do something to help the team, and it’s like the try-harder theory, you try harder, you’re not going to do well. For me to say to myself, ‘This is the type of hitter I’m going to be, I’m going to hit homers and doubles,’ let’s be honest, if we’re waiting around for me to hit 15 homers and carry the load of the offence on the days I play, my job is not that. My job is to get on base, see pitches, play the game the right way, get guys over from second and in from third, just handle the bat."
Through his first eight games, admittedly nothing near a representative sample size, Thole has been doing just that. With a .526 average and 10 hits so far – including a pinch-hit RBI single in Wednesday’s 10-8 loss to the Baltimore Orioles – he already is nearly halfway to last year’s total of 21 knocks.
More importantly, he looks like a real presence at the plate, and that matters in a big way for the Blue Jays. As the catcher best suited to get the most out of knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, he needs to be on the roster, and with Dioner Navarro likely to need more rest than a typical starting catcher in order to stay fresh and productive through September, the backup is going to play.
Navarro is already a quarter of the way to matching the 470 innings he caught in 2013, and to ask him to catch in the neighbourhood of 1,000 innings this year is like asking someone to jump from running a 10K to a marathon.
How manager John Gibbons divides the labour is a moving target, but he notes, "we’ve got to be conscious of that. … Navarro can swing it, he’s good behind the plate, but we want him strong all year."
For that reason, "it’s big that your backup is swinging it, too. Josh has changed his whole approach, and it’s done wonders for him to this point."
To this point is the key point, as the only thing guaranteed about Thole’s performance the rest of the way is that he won’t hit .526 for the whole season.
Nor does he have to – the Blue Jays simply need him to be strong handling the pitching staff and produce along the lines of the .690 OPS guy he was in 114 games for the New York Mets in 2011.
Thole’s work with Kevin Seitzer during spring training has him believing that he can get back there. Since their first session in the cage during spring training, the hitting coach’s approach has been just what the 27-year-old has needed.
"I did my flips and as I was picking up the balls, he said, ‘Hey, I know I’m the new hitting coach, we don’t know each other, but I’ve got some things for you whenever you’re ready. If you think what you’re doing is working, then do it,’" recalls Thole. "I said, ‘Listen Seitz, I hit a buck-seventy last year, I’ll be out of baseball before you can shake a finger at it, let’s go, what do you got for me?’
"From that point on I bought into his approach, his mindset, his theory. The thing was there wasn’t a whole lot mechanical, it was more between the ears, really."
Between the ears mostly, but perhaps a bit in the eyes, too.
Thole opted for laser eye surgery last October because he "was just tired of the contacts."
"I was always fidgeting with them during games, so I just said forget it, I’m done using them," he adds. "It sucks wearing them behind the plate."
The contacts become all the more irritating when catching someone like Dickey as on "balls in the dirt, foul balls, stuff comes up and hits you in the face, you blink the wrong way, the contact moves – it just felt like it was never ending."
Still, by no means does Thole use the contacts as an excuse for his struggles at the plate – "I hit when I wore contacts, too" he says, but the peace of mind of having "one less thing to worry about" certainly hasn’t hurt.
Whatever the case, Thole’s vision of both the field before him, and of himself is clear, and paying early dividends.