Since 2007, the Mets have had a different starting catcher on Opening Day every year except one (Brian Schneider filled that role in 2008 and 2009), and 2011 will be no different. Previously, I wrote about the Mets would not miss last year’s Opening Day catcher: Rod Barajas. Part of the reason I’m OK with Barajas being with the Dodgers is New York’s most likely 2011 Opening Day backstop: Josh Thole.
Don’t get me wrong, Josh Thole will never be the next Mike Piazza or Gary Carter, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be an effective, everyday catcher in Queens. His 2010 offensive slash line of .277/.357/.723 certainly isn’t Piazzaesque, but his OBP actually trumped David Wright’s (.354) and Josey Reyes’ (.321), although it should be noted that Thole only had 227 plate appearances. Power is also not part of Thole’s game; he hit just three homers last year and figures to hover around five throughout the course of a full season, but power is OK to sacrifice if overall offensive production does not suffer. Last season, Thole created 26 runs for the Mets, while Barajas, in 267 plate appearances, created 27 runs. The two seem offensively equivalent, even though Barajas has more pop.
Thole also has the makings of a patient hitter. In 2010, he struck out 12.4% of the time (compared with the MLB average of 20.7%) and walked 10.6% of the time (compared with the MLB average of 8.5%). Including his minor league numbers, Thole has struck out 11.8% of the time in his career and walked 9.8% of the time. Last season, Thole exhibited good plate discipline, swinging at 24.7% of pitches that were out of the strike zone (the MLB average was 29.3%), and when he did swing at those pitches, he made contact 75% of the time (the MLB average was 66.5%). Furthermore, Thole projects as a contact hitter, evidenced by his 90.4% career contact rate. In short, he will put the ball in play.
Defensively, there might be some questions, but Thole seems to be capable. Although he cost the Mets one run defensively, he threw out 11 of 25 base stealers. It’s difficult to judge his defense based on the small sample size, but Thole should be solid behind the plate.
Of course, there is much room for 24 year old to improve, but Thole’s career is off to a good beginning. Part of the reason why I believe Thole can and will succeed is that the Mets aren’t asking a lot of him from an offensive standpoint. If everyone remains healthy (a big if with the Mets), the one through six spots in the batting order will most likely be Jose Reyes, Angel Pagan, Carlos Beltran, Wright, Jason Bay and Ike Davis, or some similar combination of those hitters. Unless he winds up batting second (which I don’t see as likely as long as Pagan is around), Thole will hit seventh or eighth. He won’t be asked to provide the thump in the lineup, but just to do what he is capable of doing: getting on base and putting the ball in play. If he can do that, the Mets should have a catcher for the future.