Josh Thole and the role of a backup catcher

Apr 6, 2016; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays catcher Josh Thole (22) at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Toronto Blue Jays 5-3. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 6, 2016; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays catcher Josh Thole (22) at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Toronto Blue Jays 5-3. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Toronto Blue Jays backup catcher Josh Thole has been given a hard time by many fans for his lack of offensive production

The soft spoken backup catcher may be able to catch a knuckleball better than almost every other major league ballplayer — arguably even better than an elite defensive catcher like Russell Martin. That’s the way it should be though, since he has been doing it for R.A. Dickey for years.

Thole has been taking more than his fair share of criticism for his ineffective at-bats at the bottom of the Blue Jays lineup every four or five games. The ripple effect crosses over to R.A. Dickey. When Dickey struggles, which all pitchers who have ever thrown a baseball do (obviously some more than others) he gets ridiculed twice as hard because many Blue Jays fans feel that he is carrying a dead weight catcher with him.

I guess that opinion depends on what you expect from a backup catcher.

The Blue Jays had the uncommon luxury of carrying Dioner Navarro and Martin for a full season in 2015. Having two catchers who can chip in with the bats proved to be a valuable contribution to a successful offence, but it is a rare commodity that does not last long because of the lack of offensively-gifted big league catchers. 

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Navarro moved on because he was a starting catcher playing in a backup role. Now Thole has settled into the backup catching role, and many Jays fans are having a hard time accepting it. It is a role that is meant to give the 33-year-old starting catcher, who signed a long-term $82 million contract with the Blue Jays, a much needed rest every once in a while. If he chips in with a walk to turn the lineup over, that’s great. If he pulls the ball to the right side to advance Kevin Pillar to third, even better.

The role of the backup catcher is not to come in and hit .280 with 40 RBI — or even .250 for that matter. Thole is on the roster to protect Martin and catch baseballs. With or without R.A. Dickey in the rotation, he would be doing the exact same thing, because the Blue Jays $82 million investment is not getting any younger, and regardless of his early season struggles at the plate, the Blue Jays need him.

Having said that, here is a bit of proof as to why Thole is not a waste of space or an anchor on the Blue Jays offence. Of the 30 teams in the league, less than a handful of them has a backup catcher who can be considered a luxury to have on the second unit, much like the Jays with Navarro last season. Here is a look at how the Blue Jays backup catcher situation compares to the rest of the American League East.

New York Yankees
Backup catcher: Austin Romine

Much like the Blue Jays, the Yankees have significant dollars invested in Brian McCann, who is also in his early thirties. They have had the same amount of playing time and while Romine is off to a better start this season (5 hits in 10 less at bats, woo-hoo!), Thole carries the much better overall career averages. The Yankees do have Gary Sanchez waiting in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but he may need some more seasoning before getting the call to sit on the bench 80 percent of the time.

Boston Red Sox
Backup catcher: Ryan Hanigan

With Blake Swihart in the minors and making the transition to the outfield, Hanigan has a tough gig as the backup catcher at Fenway Park. The ten year veteran is actually off to a worse start than Thole this year when you look at their batting average. But in this analysis, we are looking at career numbers, because you can’t (shouldn’t) fault a backup catcher for having a poor batting average after 10 or 11 games played…

Hanigan has a career slash line better than Thole’s, but not by much. Would having Hanigan start every four or five games instead of Thole improve the Blue Jays chances of winning? Probably not.

Baltimore Orioles
Backup catcher: Caleb Joseph

With the health problems Matt Wieters has had over the years, having a solid backup catcher is a little bit more of a pressing need for the Orioles. Joseph got his first opportunity to start last year and appeared in 100 games. While he impressed with 11 home runs, he only hit .234 on the year — below Thole’s career average of .247.

Tampa Bay Rays
Backup catcher: Hank Conger

Conger and Thole are both 5-for-29 as of May 4. While he has shown he can hit the long ball in the past, his career on base percentage is a mere .295. Actually, a sub .300 OBP seems to be a trend among backup catchers league-wide — except for Thole, whose career OBP sits at .317.

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The reality is, the catching position is the weakest offensive position in baseball. By far. There are bigger things for them to worry about, like calling a game in front of a team and a defence that is used to having things a certain way — without them. Or getting creamed in the forearm (or worse) by a ball in the dirt.

If you take a look at every team in the big leagues and the “depth” they have at the position (I clearly have too much time on my hands), the career numbers do not lie. Here are a few examples of backup catchers on notable teams and playoff contenders who have worse or similar career numbers than Thole (.247 / .317 / .314, over eight MLB seasons).

Kansas City Royals – 2015 World Series Champions and 2014 Runners Up

Backup catcher: Drew Butera – .187 / .243 / .270, over seven seasons.

Houston Astros– Advanced to ALDS last season

Backup catcher: Erik Kratz – .212 / .264 / .385, over seven seasons.

Chicago Cubs – Most wins in National League

Backup catcher: David Ross – .229 / .315 / .422, over 15 seasons.

Washington Nationals – NL East leaders

Backup catcher: Jose Lobaton – .217 / .299 / .322, over seven seasons.

Pittsburgh Pirates – 2015 Playoff team

Backup catcher: Chris Stewart – .238 / .303 / .305, over ten seasons.

If a first baseman or centre-fielder hit those numbers over the course of a ten year career, most of their career would likely be in the minor leagues. It’s just the way the game is today — backup catchers do not consistently hit baseballs. It’s not their job, and clearly not the expectation. Thole can continue to do what he is doing and the Blue Jays will still need him, with or without Dickey in the rotation. There aren’t better alternatives out there.

He is an average Major League Baseball BACKUP catcher. It should be in his job description to catch baseballs and plug into the eight or nine spot in the lineup every few games. He gives Martin a breather, and will be there to catch baseballs more frequently if (knock on wood) there were an injury.

Don’t expect more than that, and it will make watching him set up in the batters box and hit a lazy fly ball to right field or a weak grounder to short much easier to stomach.