2009 Analysis: Josh Thole

josh_thole-hitJosh Thole made the improbable jump from A-ball in 2008 to MLB in 2009 — making a pit-stop in AA Binghamton in between. After hitting .321 in his 17-game September debut, and delighting fans with his youth, energy, and choked-up line drives, there’s at least a little buzz pushing for Thole to assume the starting catching role in 2010.

But is Josh Thole ready for full-time, prime-time action behind the plate?

Two years ago, Thole caught 11 games in low-A Savannah. He was primarily a first baseman who could catch “in a pinch”. Because his bat was not projecting enough power for a first-base prospect, the Mets shifted him to catcher for 75 games at Port St. Lucie in 2008, and he caught another 89 behind the dish in Binghamton this year. All told (Tholed?), he’s caught a total of 190 professional contests.

Such inexperience wasn’t an issue for Thurman Munson, but aside from that freak of athletic nature and Butch Wynegar (who was a minor leaguer for 199 ballgames) there haven’t been many men capable of becoming of MLB backstops after so little experience. Even Johnny Bench needed 265 games in the minors, and Joe Mauer caught over 280 before settling in as Minnesota’s receiver — and those two men were catchers for most of their lives, and were outstanding, “can’t-miss”, once in a lifetime talents.

So to think that Thole — a converted first baseman who was a borderline prospect before changing positions — is ready to catch regularly for the Mets is something of a pipedream (or irresponsible).

Can Thole catch for the Mets at some point in 2010? Maybe. Can he be a backup? Maybe. Would either be the best thing for him, or the Mets? Not likely.

It’s hard to make a fair and educated judgment based on 17 games and 53 at-bats, but I’ll try.

Josh Thole looks like someone who could one day be a decent to average catcher. He shows good athleticism and fairly quick feet, and usually receives the ball well (moving laterally and evenly to the ball, then catching and “sticking”). His footwork on throws to 2B looks OK, but can use improvement. His arm strength appears adequate; nothing to write home about. Blocking balls and recognizing bad pitches are an issue; he committed 3 passed balls and allowed 4 wild pitches in 127 innings — not good. But again, he’s athletic and he can move his feet well, so he has the potential to improve in all these areas — he simply needs more time behind the plate and some instruction to develop.

Offensively, Thole proved he could put the bat on the ball. His old-school choke grip and wide stance make him a defensive, “punch and judy” hitter — which is fine if you’re batting over .300 and catching. He seemed to display a sharp eye at the plate and good patience. But, so did Daniel Murphy in three times as many games and ABs as a 2008 rookie — and see how quickly that eroded after a few times around the league? Despite my skepticism, the minor league numbers suggest that OBP and contact hitter are Thole’s strengths. If he can translate that to the bigs, he may not have to be more than an adequate defensive catcher.

Bottom line? I like Josh Thole, and would like to see him catching for the Mets at some point in the future. But he’s only 22 years old, and still learning the position. He’s not Thurman Munson, Johnny Bench, nor Joe Mauer — but with more work and a little luck he might be another Butch Wynegar, or Jason Kendall. In 2010, I think it’s best for everyone if he spends another year in minors, to continue honing his craft. I’d prefer that Thole force the Mets to promote him to the big club, rather than the other way around.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. Mike October 27, 2009 at 12:29 pm
    I couldn’t agree more Joe. I’ve been talking about Thole in this space since July and I stand by everything I’ve said. I really like his bat in that he is a .300 hitter because he makes contact. In the minors he decided to take his two strike approach to all counts of an at-bat and it allowed him to dominate AA ball. What he needs is another year the minors specifically in AAA to both continue to develop as a defensive catcher and to learn to stride into a pitch every now and again for more power. If he were to shave .010 off his average for a .050 boost in slugging I think it is best for his career. Unless he is traded this off season I can’t wait to follow the AAA Bisons next year where we will see Holt, Thole, Evans, Davis, Niese, Martinez and Duda start the year.
  2. Brian October 27, 2009 at 7:48 pm
    That last line should be on a big banner in the Citi-field offices as a reminder for next time they want to move anyone (especially F-mart) up a level. I feel/hope that now that our minor leagues have more talent, at least in lower levels, we won’t feel the need to rush young players just to prove we have good minor leaguers.
  3. Mike October 27, 2009 at 10:17 pm
    Brian, that’s the thing about the minors: most organizations are on equal footing at the lower levels. Most players are either raw talents but filled with potential or roster filler. I believe based on my research that there is about the same talent at all team’s low A ball rosters across the MLB, but it is player scouting and development that determines if the player becomes a true prospect. The exception is can’t miss guys like Miguel Cabrera was but even he was too under developed to be a sure thing at first (but he quickly become a prospect at a very young age so he is the outlier).

    What this has to do with the Mets is the following: trading low minor league talent is not done often for this very reason and thus any trades must be from A+ ball and above. Teams are not interested in guys like Jesus Feliciano or Jeffrey Marte because they are too raw. Teams wants unfinished products at about the AA level (so they can polish them off in their AA or AAA level) or major league ready talent. Bad teams will trade for the F-Marts of the world thinking he is ready but at this level he either is as developed as he is going to be, or he is too far along to change drastically. These are the kinds of trades you do make in my opinion. I understand Martinez is only 20 or so but in AAA with an injury history and unimpressive numbers I can’t imagine him developing much further. If the Mets can package him, Thole and one of the low level arms the Blue Jays like (because at that level it is about scouting, as I said) for Halladay I am 100% for it. You keep your AA talents and let them start the year in AAA to finish their development. It is win-win from my perspective.

    Joe, I am interested in hearing your take on Martinez, I fear he is going down the Alex Escobar path and would absolutely support trading him. Otherwise I think he will sit in AAA, never give the Mets a reason to promote him, and then either get hurt or get brought up because of injury or because the team is awful again and then fizzle out. Even at 20 years old I feel he might be what he is due in part to his rushing through the system and his lack of good coaching.

  4. joejanish October 27, 2009 at 11:14 pm
    Mike – patience is a virtue; we’ll be getting to F-Mart soon enough. First we have to rip through … er, analyze … the infielders.
  5. Brian October 28, 2009 at 1:09 am
    Mike – I am not saying I am against trading F-mart, just that he got rushed through our minor leagues, like so many before, and it seemed like the reason was just to prove he was good. He never blew away any league, yet they would promote him and I would read online it was because he was good for his age. It’s not too late for him to get a full season at AAA. I was also including our talent at AA and AAA.
  6. Mic October 28, 2009 at 12:54 pm
    ‘Two years ago, Thole caught 11 games in low-A Savannah. He was primarily a first baseman who could catch “in a pinch”. Because his bat was not projecting enough power for a first-base prospect,’ …This sums it up for me.

    I see alot of LoDuca in him, but he will need time.

  7. Mic October 28, 2009 at 9:15 pm
    Also:

    1. Agree with Isuzu. I like the idea of a Barajas or Shoppach even Mig Olivo. as a platoon partner or slump insurance.

    2. Disagree on Thole at AAA. I see the Heath Bell shuttle for Thole. He PH and be a 3rd catcher and in so doing learn the ML nuances with little pressure catching 1-2 times a week and further allowing JM match up options with Santos/ Barajas. Another catcher is Greg Zaun who could metor Thole.