One week into the season and it seems like a lot has happened for the 2012 Mets. A sweep of the hated Braves, two strong outings from Johan Santana and injuries to Andres Torres and David Wright are some of the things that jump out immediately. One thing that gets lost in the shuffle is the hot start from Josh Thole.
Many wanted the Mets to upgrade at catcher this offseason. Those who did not want to outright replace Thole wanted to bring someone in to at least challenge him for playing time. The common perception was that Thole contributed little on offense and that his defense took a step back last season.
Thole got off to an atrocious start last year. After his first 39 games he had a .212/.289/.246 line in 135 PA. But from May 29th through the rest of the season, Thole had a .297/.376/.396 line in 251 PA. That .772 OPS would put him in the top half of catchers offensively in 2011, just behind the .778 mark of Matt Wieters.
Thole also got off to a slow start in the minors in 2010 so the question became if he could avoid a third straight poor April. Early results are extremely encouraging, as Thole has six hits, including two doubles, and three walks in 17 trips to the plate this season. That works out to a 1.101 OPS.
But while his offense has been encouraging, what about his defense work?
Defense in general is harder to evaluate than offense and perhaps no spot is harder to get an accurate read on than with catchers. The most cited defensive number for backstops is in the percentage of runners they throw out, even though more times than not a runner steals on the pitcher. But there’s no denying that Thole had a poor year throwing out runners, as he nailed just 21% of opposing baserunners last year.
Thole also led the lead in passed balls with 16, which does not help his case among his detractors. But as the primary catcher for a knuckleball pitcher, it should be no surprise that Thole had a large number of passed balls. Jason Varitek led the league in back-to-back years in passed balls serving as the primary catcher for knuckleball pitcher Tim Wakefield. The Red Sox brought in Doug Mirabelli to be Wakefield’s personal catcher and he led the league in passed balls in 2003 and 2004 despite a combined 84 starts at catcher in those two seasons.
So far this year, Thole has not committed an error, he’s thrown out one of the two runners trying to steal against him and he has two passed balls, one when Dickey was on the hill. It is way too soon to draw any definitive conclusions but the best we can say is that there is nothing damning so far.
One other stat we can mention is catcher’s ERA. There are a number of flaws with this statistic, but most of them come about when we use this to compare one catcher to another. If catcher A gets to catch Santana and catcher B has to catch Mike Pelfrey – we should expect catcher B to have a higher catcher’s ERA.
But if we take out comparing catcher A to catcher B and instead compare a catcher to the league average, a lot of the problems are minimized. Thole has a 2.37 catcher’s ERA in 38 innings. The National League has a 3.60 ERA so far this season. Again, it’s too soon to draw any conclusions but what little evidence is there is positive.
It’s fair to say that Thole is off to a hot start with the bat. Defensively, he does not appear to be causing the team a bunch of problems. Since catching was viewed as a potential trouble spot coming into the season, Mets fans should be happy with the output from Thole in the early going of 2012.