Jun 21, 2013; Toronto, ON, Canada; Toronto Blue Jays catcher Josh Thole (30) catches behind home plate against the Baltimore Orioles at Rogers Centre. The Blue Jays beat the Orioles 7-6. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Can The Blue Jays Rely on Josh Thole In 2014?

When the Toronto Blue Jays signed Dioner Navarro to be their everyday catcher and opted to non-tender incumbent backstop J.P. Arencibia, there was a clear message sent. The team expected a clear improvement from their catching corps in 2014 and Arencibia was no longer trusted to provide that improvement.

However, the team felt that Josh Thole was still worth the chance.

Toronto acquired Thole on December 17, 2012 as part of the package that included knuckle-baller R.A. Dickey. The thought was that since Thole had experience catching Dickey, that the team would benefit from having his steady hand behind the plate and that he was better offensively that he had shown the year prior.

Unfortunately, Thole disappointed both offensively and defensively last season.

The Blue Jays opted to start his season at the minor league level, where Thole tore up Triple-A pitching, hitting .322 with a .893 OPS in 41 games for the Buffalo Bisons. However, upon promotion to the Blue Jays, Thole struggled. In 45 games (135 plate appearances) Thole “hit” just .175 with a .497 OPS.

On the defensive side of the ball, his struggles were also pronounced. His catcher ERA of 4.54 ranked him 95th in the league among all catchers and he was worth -2 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013. He did catch 36% of would-be base stealers, but also allowed 9 passed balls.

Now, the Blue Jays may still hold some faith in the fact that Thole has been better in the past and that his 2014 numbers will be more reminiscent of what they were in the past, a hope held for almost every member of the 2013 team.

For instance, Thole holds a lifetime on-base percentage of .322, only to watch that dip to a disappointing .256 last season. His walk rate of 8.9% was actually up from 2012, but so was hit K-rate of 18.5%. However, he was also victimized by a BABIP of .213, 74 points below his career rate of .282. He’ll never hit for much power, but it seems like Thole was sunken by more bad luck and bad swings than anything else. Then again, this is his second straight year of decline as well.

2009 17 59 2 17 2 0 9 4 5 .321 .356 .396 .752 101
2010 73 227 17 56 7 3 17 24 25 .277 .357 .366 .723 99
2011 114 386 22 91 17 3 40 38 47 .268 .345 .344 .690 94
2012 104 354 24 75 15 1 21 27 50 .234 .294 .290 .584 64
2013 45 135 11 21 3 1 8 12 25 .175 .256 .242 .497 38
5 Yrs 353 1161 76 260 44 8 95 105 152 .251 .322 .322 .645 80
162 Game Avg. 162 533 35 119 20 4 44 48 70 .251 .322 .322 .645 80
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/22/2013.

Defensively, Thole has made his name by catching the knuckleball, but as with the pitchers who throw it, the catcher on the receiving end can live and die by its inconsistency as well. In 2012, when Dickey was a Cy Young winner, Thole’s catcher ERA ranked him 36th in baseball with a mark of 3.79. In 2011, he was rated 70th with a mark of 4.28. In the same two seasons, Thole posted a defensive runs saved mark of 4 in 2012 and -4 in 2011, with his caught stealing numbers floating in the mid-20′s.

The key thing to remember here is that Thole is just 27-years-old and relatively cheap at just $1.25 million in the final year of his guaranteed contract. The Blue Jays will give him a chance to revert back to his 2010 and 2011 form with the bat, and hope that with an improved season by R.A. Dickey, that Thole will benefit defensively as well.

Toronto does have a back-up plan in place, with A.J. Jimenez beginning the season at Double-A New Hampshire and slated to catch knuckle-baller Tomo Ohka, helping him to prepare for Dickey if his services are needed later this season. Of course, that also counts on Navarro making all of his starts in 2014 and it was 2009 when Navarro last made more than 100 appearances in a single season.

The hope here is that Thole steps up and Navarro stays healthy, leaving Jimenez a full year to develop and prepare for a bigger role in 2015. The Blue Jays don’t have a whole lot of other options, so there will be a lot of finger crossing in Toronto in 2014.

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  • Quincy-Sam

    If Dickie needs a personal catcher, Thole is the guy, not Navarro or
    somebody new, regardless of the results. But if he is going to be a
    catcher for the Jays he has to be a lot more than that.

    Thole came to the Jays with very little fanfare. Basically thought of as a catcher for Dickie and very little else said. His stats didn’t indicate he was the HR type catcher Jays fans have been used to seeing in recent years (both starters and backups). Despite two years in the starting role with the Mets, not considered as serious competition for JPA in that role. His defensive capabilities a bit of an unknown as catching a knuckleballer (or Mets pitching) tends to distort the stats. Seemed like almost a throw in to the deal as opposed to the Jays getting a legitmate potential starting catcher at the time. Expectations of him were low, despite his being a young starting catcher. Many didn’t know what to expect.

    Catchers are different from other players. Often expected to be leaders of the team especially of the pitchers. Game callers. JPA prior to 2013 had a bit of it as he came up with many of the young Jays pitchers, but not much last year. Thole as a backup to JPA seemed to have far less. New guy and fighting for his spot instead of the grizzled vet. Maybe a lack of confidence by fans, pitchers, and in himself. Not what one needs from a catcher. If he had a good year either offensively or defensively he would have been in a much better position to establish himself with the team. Instead the experts and fans calling for a upgrade at the catching position not just replace JPA.

    I think Thole is quite capable of being a major part of the team this year. More game starts. More familiar with the pitching staff. We forget that JPA worked with many new pitchers last year, but to Thole, they were all new and always changing. He even worked with more in Buffalo. Take Dickie out of his innings caught and there would be a much higher than average quantity of pitchers he caught for. He will be thought of as much more than just there to catch Dickie this year, even if not the starter.

    Realistically, a catcher in the AL who bats over .250 is good offensively. Thole probably capable of .230-.240 with enough at bats. Just don’t expect him to hit HRs or a high average. Hitting 8th or 9th, don’t look for a high OBP some NL catchers get as other team try to get him out instead of walking him in favour of going after the pitcher. But it is up to Thole to provide better offense and get on base. Not expect a free pass or try to swing for the fences. Be the singles hitter, get the sacrifice, and stay out of the DP. The basics. Fans have to learn that this is what the Jays need from their backup catcher. If he winds up hitting to the gaps and putting up RBIs, he might wind up being the starter later.

    What the Jays need from Thole is defense. Primarily with Dickie of course to start. But also both frame and call pitches with a mid game pitching change or starts with the other pitchers. Be the guy the pitchers rely on as they get used to the new guy Navarro. Have them feel he is their catcher not just Dickie’s. Take control. If the Jays pitching makes a big improvement this year watch for Thole to not only be part of the reason, but his defensive numbers jump as the season progresses. The Dickie factor will continue to affect his stats, but his non-Dickie starts are hopefully going to improve.

    I hate the idea of keeping expectations low on a player. But also hate the idea of just having an average guy. But without the WCB, JPA or Blanco distractions, time in Buffalo, the change to the AL, and facing a whole lot of new pitchers, I look to see a whole lot more from Thole. Being a catcher for Dickie and a backup, being average actually wouldn’t be bad. But if the confidence is there in himself, the pitchers, Gibbons, and the fans, I think Thole is might surprise a lot of people. Both offensively and defensively. Not an all star, but a key part of the team and their success.

    Despite what many think, I expect a big improvement in Jays pitching this year. Thole will be a part of it. Part of the team and not just Dickie’s catcher. Better both offensively and defensively. Someone to be relied on.

    Apologies for the long post.

  • JaysHopeful

    When Thole caught, I enjoyed watching the games. When Johnson, Redmond, Happ, and Rogers threw to Thole, they had success. Thole is a young and effective glove-guy. HE CAN FRAME A KNUCKLEBALL. Give him more at-bats, and see what he can do. I really don’t understand the anti-Thole sentiments.