Josh Thole’s Catching Stance


Take a look at the above photo, taken in Port St. Lucie from yesterday’s intrasquad game by Matt Cerrone of MetsBlog. It’s Josh Thole in his “runners on” catching stance.

Notice the flat back, weight forward on the balls of the feet (and off the heels), arms extended out in front. It’s classic, 1970s positioning, made famous by the likes of Johnny Bench.

And it’s wrong.

That’s right — Johnny Bench, the greatest catcher who ever lived — used an improper, inefficient catching stance.

If you didn’t think I was off my rocker when criticizing Sandy Koufax last week, then surely you believe I’ve gone bonkers on this one.

But it’s true. Yes, Bench was the best. Ever. (Though, all around, Thurman Munson was a close second.) However, he succeeded IN SPITE OF his catching stance. As it turns out, Bench was such an incredible athlete, he was able to field his position starting from a stance that his body naturally fought against.

Don’t believe it? Try this at home: get into the stance you see above. Tell me what direction your body is going (there’s only one possibility). I’ll wait …

OK, so, where did your body go? If you said “it fell forward”, then you understand what I’m talking about. If you said “ouch! I just slipped a disc!” then please go see a chiropractor, and mention “L5”.

Besides eventually herniating a disc (or multiple, in my case), that old-school catching stance is absolutely unathletic, inefficient, and ineffective for 99% of the movements a catcher has to make. Yet, this stance has been taught for the last 30+ years by “expert baseball people”. The fact a stance or movement is illogical has no effect on whether it is handed down from generation to generation — baseball is very slow to learn, and “baseball men” are too quick to accept (or too lazy to question) what is taught to them by the men they respect.

And unfortunately, it appears that Josh Thole is being taught the “old school” way. In my opinion, the only way to succeed from that position is to be incredibly athletically gifted (like Bench). For mere mortals, such a position will only cause the body to fight itself, and make every action unnatural, inefficient, and most likely ineffective.

The RIGHT catching stance is more balanced, with the back perpendicular (rather than parallel) to the ground. The head, back, and hips should all be more or less aligned — or “stacked”, as former MLB catcher Brent Mayne preaches. I met Brent Mayne’s dad way back in 1993, when he was first discovering and teaching the best catching mechanics. More than 15 years later, we’re just now starting to see a few catchers in MLB utilizing this more efficient (and less stressful on the back) stance. With the head and weight over the hips, the catcher is in an ideal position to move laterally very easily — to do things like move toward moving balls, both in flight and in the dirt. It’s also a better position from which to begin efficient footwork for making throws to bases on steal attempts. The “old school”, forward-leaning stance forces a catcher to either step forward to start a throw (usually with a jab step), or to shift his weight back and “load” on the back foot (Bench did this). In both cases, precious tenths of a second are lost, and the movements can throw off timing and/or balance.

Using the “modern” and more athletic stance, the throwing mechanics begin with a very quick, short, slide of the right foot toward the middle of the body and underneath the butt — just enough to align the left / front hip toward second base. It’s a much quicker, simpler, and more efficient action — and much easier to repeat with consistency — than one that requires a jab step or significant weight shift.

Additionally, by staying “stacked”, the catcher is already in a good position to block pitches, because he can very easily move laterally by starting with his hands and letting the body follow. Whereas in the “old school” stance, again, the catcher either must shift the weight back before moving toward the ball, or attack the ball in a forward movement. Both of those cases require more reaction time and promote “stabbing” at or “attacking” the ball — which in turn causes the ball to bounce further away from the catcher’s body (and thus allowing runners to take an extra base).

There’s more to it than that, but it’s hard to explain without showing you — so I’ll point you to a pro. Check out the video below to get an idea of the theory and fundamentals behind the “modern” stance, as told by none other than Brent Mayne himself:

I’m not 100% in agreement with everything that Mayne says, but what he teaches is light years ahead of the old school. And yes, I do teach the proper, more logical and effective catching fundamentals — but I’m expensive. Email me if you are interested.

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 March 2, 2010 at 10:37 am
    Great stuff Joe! Personally I try not to worry about this sort of thing for young players because too many times it just doesn’t matter. Maybe I’m naive (thinking that Thole will be okay physically because he doesn’t have to be great defensively, just capable), but I just lack the baseball knowledge you have regarding proper fundamentals.

    On another note the spring schedule starts today (weather permitting) and I wanted to give a few thoughts on what I’m monitoring this spring (because I lack a blog of my own).

    The top 3 things I am watching closely is
    Jenry Mejia’s performance against advanced players (high minor league and major league talent). I think if he performs well that pretty much locks him into the bullpen to start the year, which is a shame because he needs at least another full year and he should be developed as a starter until he proves he can’t do it.

    The second thing is the Perez/Maine/Pelfrey trio. Say what you will about spring training but every year we see guys under perform and it carries over into the season. If these three look good I won’t take it as a sure thing they will perform well in season, but I will take it as relief that they won’t be guaranteed to stink. So far they look pretty good.

    Finally I’m watching Ike Davis, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Fernando Martinez and Josh Thole. I call these four the promising ones because I think they can contribute at some point this year. Nieuwenhuis is behind the others, but after his huge performance in St. Lucie last year, earning him a spot in AA, he falls into the few outfielders the Mets have AA and above I actually want to see in NY at any point this year. Nieuwenhuis really pushed himself into the legit prospect area that needs to be confirmed with early success in AA.

    Other than that Reyes, Wright, Bay, Murphy, Niese, the bullpen all have intrigue and are worth following, but not as much as the above 3 things to me.

  2. Andrew Vazzano March 2, 2010 at 11:57 am
    Trade him.
  3. Old Backstop March 3, 2010 at 4:35 pm
    This is of course a very interesting topic to me personally.

    I agree whole-heartedly with what Janish is saying, but before I blast Thole I want to throw something out there. This is just one picture taken in a Spring Training game. I do not know who the runner is, what the count is, and what way his feet are aligned with home plate. I don’t even know if the batter is lefty or righty or what point in the delivery the pitcher is in.

    When I used to catch (and I did that quite a bit), one of my strengths was throwing out runners. Although some people may not even be aware of this, I had a different stance for a number of different situations.

    I mean, there was your “no one on” stance. There was your “I don’t care what the coach thinks I am taking it easy stance” and your “I am trying to impress someone stance”. More importantly, I had to have a different stance with runners on base, and sometimes even for different pitches. Breaking pitches in the dirt required me to have slightly different foot positioning.

    Also, you have one stance for runners on base that aren’t going anywhere, and another one entirely for runners that are likely to run. If I am Thole, my stance is very different with Ryan Howard on first than it would be for Jimmy Rollins. With Rollins, you give up a little lateral movement for a quicker release/throw. With Howard, you make sure you can block anything, because that’s the only way he’s going to 2nd.

    What I do recommend and practiced myself with runners on base that could actually run was to position your left heel even with the toes of your right foot. This was cutting your quick release stride in half (similar to not having a big hitch in your swing). Your feet were in a read to throw position. Your head should be above your hips (as Janish and Mayne teach) and your knees under your shoulders, no wider or closer together than that.

    The best trick to get to the stance? Stand up straight and jump up and down three times. Where your feet are positioned after the third jump is your strongest balance point. That is your gate, and from there you just draw back your right foot about 5-10 inches to cheat your legs to the throwing position.

    Here is a picture of a catcher in a ready stance. He’s a little further forward than I would be, but notice the foot positioning with the right foot back further than the left:

    Old Backstop

  4. joejanish March 3, 2010 at 7:08 pm
    Mike – thanks for your notes on the youngsters. As for the fundamentals for young players, this is exactly where the Mets fail while other organizations succeed — in player development. Teaching (and developing) the absolute basics is what made the Braves the Braves, for example.

    Old Backstop – thanks for sharing!

    I agree that a catcher will have several different stances. However I pounced on this particular visual because it represents the same stance I saw from Thole last September with runners on. Even if this image is not his “runners on” stance, I can’t think of ANY reason a catcher would be in such a position. OK, MAYBE if the catcher had stolen the bunt sign from the opposing team, knew a bunt was on, and the pitch was coming in at the moment this picture was snapped. Otherwise, it is a very limiting position — there’s little a catcher do from it efficiently.

    For those who misconstrue: I am NOT criticizing Thole. Rather, I’m putting blame on the Mets’ player development personnel, in particular the person or persons who taught this dinosaur era stance to Thole in the first place.

    Here the Mets had an ideal situation, in that they were effectively “creating” a catcher from scratch — and seem to have a decent athlete with a strong work ethic. It’s ten times as hard to get a 20-year-old catcher to “re-learn” his mechanics, because he probably has bad habits that have been ingrained for years. With Thole, who didn’t catch much at all before joining the organization, they had the opportunity to teach all the best, most effective fundamentals of the position — with no history of bad habits to interfere.

    Though, I can’t put too much blame on the Mets, as there are many other hardheaded organizations that have absolutely no clue as to what “good” catching mechanics look like. Even the Ripkens have an old-school guy teaching old-school stances and technique.

    New ideas and methods are slooooooooow to take hold in baseball.

  5. Old Backstop March 3, 2010 at 7:22 pm
    The one thing that did cross my mind when I initially saw the picture and read the post was that I wondered if he were setting up for a low pitch and trying to frame it.

    I don’t think he’s as off-balance as you think. The knees are so bent that his rear will weigh him down enough on the backside to keep him level. The only concerns really would be a lack of lateral movement and a slower release on a throw because he has further to move. Both valid concerns.

    I do remember reading that he threw out 30% of baserunners last year in AA, which isn’t that bad.

    As for him learning to be a catcher, this is now his 6th year spending at least some time as a catcher. His first year with the Mets (2005), he caught 7 games of the 28 he played in for the GC Mets. With each passing season, his games as a catcher increased and his games as a 1B decreased, so this is nothing new for him – at least not as new as most people think.

    My guess is that he caught some in High School as well. By the time he was called up to the Majors last year, he had caught over 300 games over 5 seasons at 4 different minor league levels.

  6. Mike March 5, 2010 at 10:27 am
    Off-topic but it has to be said.

    Did you see that bomb Ike Davis hit? Spring training or no, that raw power, bat speed, and discipline (2 walks in the game) is encouraging. Now his fielding seems to be off because he’s made a few errors already and he’s known as a good fielder… plus he’s a lefty thrower (Keith Hernandez is smiling somewhere).

    I’m not getting ahead of myself because I still believe he belongs in Buffalo, but boy-oh-boy does Davis look like a major league 1st baseman.

  7. Vin Reda March 8, 2010 at 3:21 pm
    Personally, I don’t care what his catcher’s stance is, I care about this:
    Potential Met Catchers Against Right-Handed Pitching, 2009

    Josh Thole (49 AB): BA .349, OB .388, SP .395 — OPS .783

    Henry Blanco (162 AB): .200, .273, .290 — OPS .563

    Chris Coste (169 AB): .225, .304, .292 — OPS .595

    Omir Santos (198 AB): .283, .321, .406 — OPS .727

    Rod Barajas (343 AB): .213, .241, .377 — OPS .618

    WHY are we currently sending Thole and Santos to the minors. Don’t we face more right hand pitching than left-handers (about 2 to 1)?

    By the way, Thole’s not an aberration for 49 ABs. He’s hit that way the last two years in the minors. (Omir hasn’t.) I’d like to see all his stances on the Mets about 115-120 games this season, rather than the 3 aging slugs (not sluggers) against righties.

  8. isuzudude March 8, 2010 at 3:42 pm
    Vin –
    While Thole and Santos showed the keenest knack for hitting righties in 2009, that doesn’t mean Barajas or Blanco won’t hit righties in 2010. I’d additionally be a bit more skeptical that Thole and Santos can continue their high-level of success, as your sample sizes (247 combined ABs) are really too small to accurately state those two can maintain their 2009 numbers.

    Furthermore, the gist of your point is to dismiss defenisve skills while putting the sole emphasis on hitting. Regardless if Thole can hit .300+ vs righties at the major league level, if he gives half the runs he creates back to the opposition because of poor defense, then where is the benefit for the Mets?

    Personally, I think the 2010 season has ended before it’s even begun, so if the Mets want to play all the kids this year to give them experience and seasoning at the big stage, fine by me. However, I don’t think anyone doubts Thole needs more time to mature his defensive prowess to be a successful major league catcher, and if the Mets covet his future and their 2010 season, he best belongs at AAA. Why overmatch him so soon when it’s obvious he needs more time to develop?

  9. Old Backstop March 8, 2010 at 3:54 pm
    Good points iz and Vin. One thing I keep noticing is that people are probably underrating Thole’s defensive skills, while overrating his power.

    I think the Mets want Thole to spend time in the minors more so to work on adding power (through becoming more comfortable at the AA/AAA levels) than they are worried solely about his defense.

    Everyone realizes that Thole is patient at the plate and that he has a good eye and can put a line drive stroke on the ball, but there is also concern that he’s not putting a lot of mustard on his hits.

    The hope is that he can mature defensively AND with power in the minor league levels for at least another half of a season before they throw him into the fire that is the bigs.

    If the Mets are done by the trade deadline, I would expect them to trade some of the veteran catchers for whatever they can (two of Blanco, Barajas, Coste and Santos) and give Thole a full time job for Aug. and Sept with the Mets to see how he fares.

    On an unrelated note, I am also interested to see what they plan to do with Fernando Martinez having Bay, Beltran and Francoeur in place already.

  10. Vin Reda March 8, 2010 at 4:54 pm
    It’s very reasonable what you’re saying, but, even if I didn’t agree with the first sentence of your last paragraph (i.e., the season HAS ended before it’s begun — thanks to our ACTIVE pursuit of Jon Garland, Erik Bedard, Joel Pineiro, Randy Wolf, and Rich Harden) — I would still say that the kid has shown he can hit line drives now, wasn’t overwhelmed in his call-up last year, and can develop in the majors.

    I note Old Backstop’s additional note, and I would agree that he’s already shown signs of being adequate behind the plate. In High A, he only threw out 22% of base stealers in 2008, but he was up to 30% last year at Binghamton. I didn’t SEE anything that looked real bad with the way he handled pitches last year. Hitting? He’s shown doubles power already.

    I’ll admit I’m VERY prejudiced. I have him real cheap on my rotisserie team. BUT, I thought he could hit in the majors when I got him last year after looking at his Minor L stats, and I’m confident he can do so again this year. Catchers with .300 BAs and .370+ OBPs are valuable anywhere, any time.

    With decent coaching — oh well, yeah, it’s the Mets — he could improve his catching and MAYBE power-hitting skills (although I hesitate to fool with any kid who hits .300 and will draw a walk, and who has a smart father bringing him along).

    And these other guys are just going to be DEPRESSING. Barajas has been above .300 OBP for more than 200 ABs once in his career (.306).

  11. joejanish March 8, 2010 at 5:53 pm
    Thole caught all of 16 games last year, and what I saw from him behind the plate was a kid who was uncomfortable, overmatched, and mechanical, with poor blocking skills, slow feet, inconsistent release, and weak arm. However, I saw enough to believe that he could evolve into an adequate MLB catcher with another 150-200 games of experience.

    I would be stunned to see him hit .300 with a .370 OBP in MLB in 2010. But even if he did, I don’t know how valuable it would be if it came with 10-15 passed balls and a 15-20% of baserunners thrown out (not to mention inexperience handling pitchers, calling a game, etc.). Mike Piazza’s offensive production BARELY made up for his atrocious defense — especially against teams like the Marlins who would steal 8-9 bases a game when he was behind the plate. A singles hitter like Thole has to be at least average behind the plate, and he’s not there yet. Some day, probably.