Josh Thole can catch the knuckleball.
Who: Josh Thole, No. 30, catcher, bats left, throws right, catches knuckleballs (maybe), 26-years old, 6-foot-1, 215 pounds.
Provenance: Breese, Illinois. Thole was drafted in the 13th round of the 2005 amateur by the New York Mets. He was acquired by Toronto from the Mets on December 17th, 2012 along with a mess o’ players in exchange for Travis d’Arnaud, Noah Syndergaard, John Buck, a minor leaguer and a $10 gift card for a coffee and donut chain.
Contract status: Thole avoided arbitration with a two-year deal worth $2.5 million, with an option for 2015. He has minor-league options remaining.
Top line numbers: 308 games played in four seasons with the Mets. A .331 OBP, .333 SLG, 7 HRs in 1026 plate appearances. Strikes out 12.4 per cent of the time, walks 9.1 per cent of the time.
2012 Stats:A .294 OBP, .290 SLG in 354 plate appearances (104 games). Thole has a career-high strikeout rate (14.1 per cent) and walk rate of 7.6 per cent.
Injury history: Thole missed 24 days with a concussion in 2012 following a home plate collision with Ty Wigginton. He posted .273 OBP/.263 SLG in 262 PAs after the injury.
Looking back: Josh Thole spent much of last season serving as the personal catcher for R.A. Dickey, so one would have to imagine that his value behind the plate would make him that much more of an asset to the Jays this season. The assumption being that because Thole HAS caught the knuckleball, he CAN catch the knuckleball reliably.
A few weeks back, I made that assumption myself when poo-pooing the notion that Henry Blanco might be the backup catcher to start the season. Blanco? What is this…2003? Did we acquire Greg Maddux when no one was looking? And can that guy even catch a floater? And he didn’t even get a multi-year deal, so…duh.
It turns out that Blanco can catch the knuckler, and Dickey stated that he worked as well with the veteran as anyone. Meanwhile, Thole leads MLB in passed balls over the past three seasons with 38, including 18 last year. Bob Uecker’s clever lines aside, a passed ball is not a wild pitch, and one would figure that any number of other catchers could chase Dickey’s premium offerings to the backstop if given the chance.
There are parts of Josh Thole’s game that are admirable. He generally has a decent walk rate, doesn’t strike out too much, and hits the ball to all fields when he’s right. His performance at the plate last year was sub-par even by the relatively low standards applied to part-time catchers, but a charitable person might assume that the concussion he suffered blocking the plate might have affected his play for the balance of the schedule.
From 2009 to 2011, Thole was good for a .350 OBP and a .707 OPS in 672 plate appearances. Over his first three seasons, J.P. Arencibia managed a .708 OPS in 895 PAs, but with a .275 OBP. Yes, dingers are nice and slap hitters are frustrating. But making outs is the worst thing of all.
Looking ahead: While the Blue Jays have evolved into a big payroll team, controlling assets remains an issue. Yes, Josh Thole has a new deal, but he also has options, which weighs heavily against him in the battle for a roster spot this spring.
Mind you, there’s a lot that happens to catchers in the run of a week, and a ding or crack or ouchie here or there will allow Thole to slide onto the roster if either Arencibia or Blanco can’t answer the bell once the real games start. Otherwise, he’ll likely be in Buffalo for the bulk of 2012.
The big question will be whether Thole can regain his previous offensive form to such a degree that it will make up for his lack of power and his deficiencies behind the plate.
Optimistically: Thole comes back from a down year and posts a good OBP in Buffalo, eventually working his way into 150-200 plate appearances in the Majors by season’s close.
Pessimistically: He posts decent numbers against righties in the International League, but backslides into a role as a no-power, slap-hitting, weak-gloved backup-to-the-backup catcher.