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The 2011 season represented something new for Josh Thole. For the first time in his major league career, the starting job was his to lose.
In the beginning of the season, it did not look like he could handle that responsibility.
For the first two months of the season, Thole struggled in just about every facet of the game. At the plate, Thole hit .227 with a paltry .301 on base percentage, and a SO / BB ratio of 23/15. Expectations were never that high for Thole, but coming off a second half of 2010 where he hit .254 with a .333 OBP and SO / BB ratio a lot closer to 1:1, the Mets their catcher of the future would be improving, not taking steps backwards.
However, when June rolled around, Thole found himself and became the catcher the Mets were looking for.
From June 1st until the end of the regular season, Thole put up a .292/.372/.387 slugging to go along with a SO / BB ratio of 24:23.
Incredible numbers that would make Thole an all-star candidate every season.
Keep in mind that only one full time catcher posted a higher batting average on the season higher than Thole’s four month average of .292, and that was Yadier Molina's .305. Also consider that only one full-time catcher in all of baseball had a higher on base percentage than Thole’s four month .372, and that was Alex Avila’s .389, in the American League!
It was not like Thole was hot for a week or two then regressed. These numbers are compiled over a four month span, covering 240 plate appearances, and are supported with peripherals that are similar to his career numbers.
One potential reason for his success that may or may not lead to more down the road is his increase in performance when hitting seventh in the lineup as compared to eighth.
According to baseballreference.com, Thole started the game hitting seventh in the order 41 times and eighth 33 times. When hitting seventh, Thole put up a .331/.404/.414 slash line with 13 SO’s against 18 walks. Hitting eighth, Thole put up a .237/.323/.316 slash line with 20 SO’s against only 13 walks.
The difference is startling.
Apparently, hitting eighth and one spot in front of the pitcher either changed Thole’s approach drastically and/or negatively affected the pitches he saw. Regardless, this is something that I hope Terry Collins and his staff take into account this upcoming season, especially considering the answer as to whom would hit eighth is already on his roster.
Ruben Tejada and his .287/.379/.340 slash line as the eighth hitter has proven he is comfortable hitting in front of the pitcher. If T-T can come close to repeating their 2011 levels of production this deep into the lineup, the Mets will generate an incredible amount of value considering these are generally the “easy outs” in a National League lineup.
Besides hitting eighth, two other glaring weaknesses at this point in Josh Thole’s career are his inability to hit lefties and his lack of defensive skills.
While he improved defensively as the season progressed, his TZR was -5, which means he cost his team five runs defensively over the course of the season. There were times last season where his ability to call a game and defensive fundamentals were questioned by the Mets broadcasters and media, so looking forward toward 2012, he may be criticized early and often, with the defensively sound Mike Nickeas projected to be his backup.
What Nickeas does not bring however, is a viable platoon partner for Thole like that of former Met Ronny Paulino, who played against left-handers. In his career, albeit in only 74 plate appearances, Thole has hit .162/.253/.216 against southpaws. Considering Nickeas is a career .237 hitter overall in the minor leagues, Thole will get more changes to prove himself against lefties, which could hamper his overall batting line.
Projecting Thole for 2012, I think he will improve on his 2010 and 2012 numbers. Bill James projected a .278/.353/.369 slash line in 428 at-bats and RotoChamp, another source on Fangraphs.com that uses statistical analysis, has Josh putting up a .291/.371/.365 campaign.
Finishing the year with a WAR anywhere from 2-3 is a very reasonable goal for Thole, and something that would give the Mets a tremendous value as a catcher. With continued improvement behind the plate and calling games, he could turn himself into one of the top five catchers in the National League.
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