When you hear the name Josh Thole, an image automatically pops in your head of the pudgy lefty-hitting catcher who chokes up on the bat. You probably think of him as a pretty good hitter, one who does a nice job of getting on base. The only problem is that because of his batting style and approach, he does not hit for much power.
But what if he did?
Last year Thole had a .277/.357/.366 line for a .723 OPS. That ranked 18th out of 44 catchers with at least 200 PA last year. Thole tied for ninth in that same group with his .357 OBP but was tied for 25th with his .366 SLG.
A poor September really did in Thole’s slugging mark. Through August 30th, he had a .308/.386/.410 line in 132 PA. This was right in line with what he did when he was called up to the Mets in 2009, when Thole had a .321/.356/.396 slash output.
But in September, the Mets backstop had a .235/.316/.306 line. He had just 20 hits and four extra-base hits in the final month-plus of the season, and five hits and three extra-base hits came in his last four games of the season. Thole went through an 80 PA stretch where he had a .494 OPS.
That’s not that unusual – players go through slumps like that all of the time. But when you only have 227 PA on the season, it’s tough to be sub-replacement level in 80 of them. That worked out to 35 percent of his total for the season.
So, where do we rate Thole offensively at this point in his career? His lifetime major league batting line shows him with a .373 SLG in 286 PA. Basically, that’s what the Fans projections over at FanGraphs thinks Thole will do this season. The 38 people who filled out projections on Thole have him with a .377 SLG mark for the upcoming season. ZiPS is right there, projecting him for a .380 mark while the Bill James system (frequently cited as the most “optimistic” one) has him for a .385 SLG.
Let’s look at what similar catchers to Thole did. Here are the six catchers closest to Thole in SLG who had at least 200 PA in the majors at age 23 over the past 20 years and what they slugged at age 24:
Valentin did not play in the majors at age 24 and only played 39 games in the minors, so an injury is a very real possibility here. The others all saw their SLG go up for their age-24 season, with four of them improving by 38 or more points. Only Saltalamacchia basically repeated his SLG from his age-23 season and even his went up a few points.
Excluding Valentin, the other five catchers combined to slug .369 at age 23 and .415 at age 24 for a 46-point increase in their SLG. If Thole had this bump, his SLG in 2011 would be .412 for the season.
Through games of March 24th in Spring Training, Thole has a .409/.447/.705 line in 47 PA. He has 18 hits, with four doubles and three homers. Thole did not hit his third HR last year until his 217th PA of the season. The most likely explanation here is that this is a small sample fluke during Grapefruit League play.
Obviously, Thole is not going to come remotely close to his Spring SLG numbers. Still, it’s nice to see the extra-base hits and it does give hope that he can increase his power output this season. If Thole kept his 2010 OBP and meets his expected age 24 SLG of .412, that would give him a .769 OPS, which would have been the eighth-best mark in the majors last year for a full-time catcher.
We’re conditioned to think of Thole as a catcher with a good OBP. Hopefully after this year, we’ll say he’s got a little pop in his bat, too.