Brief exposure to Nickeas makes fans clamor for Josh Thole

If you ask most Mets fans which player is struggling the most here recently the two most popular answers would be Andres Torres and Ike Davis. Both are hitting .128 since May 8th, so it’s hard to find fault with either of those answers. However, Mike Nickeas has been performing even worse. Since May 8th, Nickeas has a .080/.207/.120 slash line for a .327 OPS. Torres has a .527 OPS in this stretch while Davis checks in at .530 over the same time period.

May 8th is significant since that is the first day the Mets played without Josh Thole. The team is 6-9 with Thole sidelined and just 4-7 in games started by Nickeas. Most fans expected a drop-off offensively going from Thole to Nickeas, but there were hopes that at least some of that would be made up defensively.

Nickeas was chosen for his defense and no one has ever accused Thole of being a Gold Glove performer behind the plate.

There have been 45 catchers to play at least 100 innings this year and Nickeas has 132 innings behind the plate. Yet he ranks tied for 41st in Defensive Runs Saves with a (-4) ranking, despite DRS being a counting stat depending on playing time. Meanwhile, the alleged defensively-challenged Thole has a +5 DRS, the second-best mark in the league.

Thole will always rank among the leaders in most passed balls and wild pitches, in part due to being the primary catcher for R.A. Dickey. But we have at least one measure that views his early defensive play in 2012 as a positive. Plus, if you saw Nickeas behind the plate for Dickey’s last start, you saw the catcher taking several deep breaths trying to control himself out there while battling the knuckleball. It did not look like a fun time for Nickeas.

But even if we want to say the two catchers have been comparable defensively, there’s no denying that Thole is miles ahead on offense. Thole has a .726 OPS while Nickeas checks in with a .460 mark.

Many fans wanted Sandy Alderson to acquire a backup catcher in the offseason but the Mets’ GM sunk nearly all of his available cash into the bullpen. The relievers have been sub-par while the backup catcher has been atrocious. And Kelly Shoppach, who was a free agent ripe for the picking, sits with a .799 OPS.

The good news is that Thole has departed for Port St. Lucie, where he will begin baseball activities. The latest update had him appearing in a minor league rehab game next week. So we will have 10 days to two weeks more of fun with the backup catchers. You know it’s bad when you’re rooting for Rob Johnson, he of the lifetime .578 OPS, to be healthy enough to play.

Hurry back, Thole, the Mets need you.

Lucas May eyes backup catcher role on Mets

Lucas May sounds like a baseball player’s name. Actually, it sounds like a name from the 1960s or 1970s. Either way, the ball jumped off his bat yesterday, as he went 2-for-3 with a double, run scored and two RBIs. If the name’s not familiar, the Mets signed May to a minor league contract last December and he is in camp battling for the backup catcher spot.

May is a baseball lifer. He was drafted in 2003 and did not make his major league debut until 2010, when he came up in September and got into 12 games with the Royals. With the injury to Jason Kendall, it looked like May was going to catch a break and earn a spot with Kansas City for Opening Day last year. Instead he did not play a game in the majors, got off to a terrible start at Triple-A and was dealt to Arizona in mid-year.

A .200 BABIP doomed May last year at Omaha, where he put up a .176/.263/.329 line in 95 PA. After the trade he went back to being the same hitter he was in 2010, as his .270/.363/.479 line for Reno compared favorably to the .275/.362/.516 line he posted the previous year.

Originally a shortstop, May switched to the outfield before landing behind the plate. He converted to catcher before the 2007 season and has worn the tools of ignorance for just five years. No one will confuse May with Johnny Bench, but he has worked hard to become an acceptable backstop and last year he threw out 28 percent (18-47) of opposing baserunners.

Most fans wanted to see the Mets pick up a catcher in the offseason, someone to at least mentor Josh Thole, if not outright challenge him for playing time. Instead, the Mets spent nearly all of their available money on the bullpen, determined that a Thole-Mike Nickeas combo could at least hold the fort at catcher.

But not only did the Mets lack options at catcher at the major league level, it is likely the weakest position in the system as far as players who will likely reach the majors and contribute more than a cup of coffee. At the very least, May should provide a solid option at Triple-A.

Nickeas has been universally praised for his work handling pitchers. The latest hurler to credit him is Matt Harvey, who Nickeas caught during the offseason. However, the question with Nickeas is if he can hit enough to be the team’s backup catcher. Last year, Nickeas hit just .189 in limited action with the Mets. In eight years in the minors, Nickeas has a lifetime .671 OPS.

While Nickeas is the front-runner for the team’s backup catcher, we should not rule out the possibility of May breaking camp with the job. Nickeas spent the offseason working on his hitting and so far has two hits in six at-bats. But if Nickeas tails off and May can continue his hot hitting from yesterday, he will make it hard on Sandy Alderson and Terry Collins as they decide who to bring north with the club