Mets' Thole not afraid of reinventing himself

Mets' Thole not afraid of reinventing himself

NEW YORK -- Long before Josh Thole stood in front of the New York City media hoard for the first time, he fielded the same question day after day.

Do you really think you can catch in the Major Leagues?

No one questioned whether Thole could hit, but he was starting to develop a reputation as a defensive liability at the most important defensive position in baseball.

"You look at most catchers, they're very defensive-minded," Thole said. "I've tried to turn things a little bit and make myself more defensive-minded, because last year I was always getting asked, 'Well, you think you can catch in the Major Leagues?' And if there's doubt in anybody's mind, I don't want that doubt. So I've tried to turn the tables and say, 'I'm going to give myself a chance to be a good defensive catcher and still bring a little offense to the table.'"

Mets manager Jerry Manuel had that doubt when the team recalled the 23-year-old Thole from Triple-A Buffalo on May 10. Henry Blanco had just been placed on the bereavement list, and the Mets needed another catcher to back up Rod Barajas.

Thole was in the Major Leagues for five days before being sent back to Buffalo without recording a start behind home plate. Manuel didn't trust his young catcher yet.

"You just try to enjoy your time here until you get that phone call to go back down," Thole said before being optioned.

On May 19, with Thole still in Buffalo, the Mets made a roster move that would prove instrumental in Thole's mission to prove he could catch in the Majors. The team selected the contract of 35-year-old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey to help stabilize a rotation decimated by injury.

Just more than a month later, Dickey surpassed everyone's expectations and earned a regular spot in the rotation after going 6-0 with a 2.33 ERA, and Thole was back with the club.

Barajas had a tough time handling the knuckleball to that point, so Manuel decided to give Thole a shot, knowing that the two forged a strong relationship in Spring Training and in Buffalo.

"He was always interested in catching me, even on the side playing catch," Dickey said. "He really took it upon himself to learn how to do it well, and that speaks volume for him and his character and who he wants to be as a professional."

Thole was the first person to catch Dickey in Spring Training, and from then on, Dickey threw "almost exclusively" to Thole.

The first time Thole -- who at that point had no knuckleball experience -- caught Dickey in the bullpen, he took a few balls off the face mask and quickly learned Dickey's one tip for new catchers.

"The biggest thing was don't reach out at the ball," Thole said. "The first bullpen I caught, I was reaching out, reaching out and I was wearing balls all over my mask, my chest, everywhere."

Eventually, Thole learned to let the ball get deep and keep his hands relaxed enough to snatch the floater out of the air at the last possible second.

With Thole now catching Dickey in the Majors, the battery's relationship was evident from the start.

"He was never intimidated by it. He never dreaded doing it," Dickey said. "He always viewed it as an opportunity to get more playing time, or wanted to do something that other people couldn't do well, and he did it."

Manuel also began giving him starts on days when Jon Niese was pitching, and Thole had cracked the catching rotation in addition to his role as a pinch-hitter.

Thole, who bats lefty, has brought more than a little offense to the Mets' table, hitting .296 with a .406 on-base percentage in 64 plate appearances since being recalled. Those numbers are right in line with what Manuel saw last season when Thole hit .326 over 59 plate appearances with the team.

Thole's offensive production is an advantage and luxury from the catcher position, but his skills might be thought of differently had he not been willing to make a major change.

"If I want my career to go anywhere, I need to get behind the plate," Thole decided last season. "Being a first baseman and not hitting any home runs is not a good combination."

So like Dickey, who was once a young fireballing right-hander, Thole reinvented himself in the hopes of extending his career.

"I think there's a mutual respect there -- I definitely know what it's like to leave who you were behind in an effort to do something new and different," Dickey said. "You risk quite a bit, and he's made that commitment, and it's worked out for him."

When he was a first baseman, Thole spent the bulk of his time trying to improve his offensive game. Now, he has committed to studying scouting reports and familiarizing himself with who is available to pinch-hit for the opposition.

All of that preparation takes away from a catcher's hitting because there isn't enough time to work in the cage and watch video of opposing pitchers, Thole said. Fortunately, Thole's swing might not be his most valuable offensive tool.

Among players with as many at-bats as Thole, he has the 11th highest walk rate (15.6 percent) in the Majors, and his strikeout rate (9.3 percent) is 10 percentage points lower than anyone above him on that list.

Dickey said Thole reminds him of Jason Kendall in the way that he grinds out at-bats and fouls off pitches, almost impossible to put away. Thole knows that he's not a power hitter, and has to work hard to get on base as a bottom-of-the-lineup hitter.

"He's a pretty selfless player, and that's a huge compliment," Dickey said. "He doesn't have an agenda when you're out there. He wants the best for you, and so he doesn't have an ego about it. He doesn't have a hidden plan that he's trying to uncover."

And though he has proven to be the team's best-hitting catcher and best option to catch Dickey, Thole has the same attitude as he did before he was optioned to Buffalo without recording a single at-bat in May.

"For me, I still stay on my day-to-day basis," Thole said. "I still try not to get caught up in that."

Thole and Dickey are two unforeseen bright spots on an otherwise disappointing season for the Mets, who slipped to 7 1/2 games behind the Braves on Wednesday.

But both of them know what it's like to be doubted and may never feel totally secure.

"For guys like myself, and to some extent Josh, even though he's a young guy, I treat every game as though it's my first game and my last game, and he does the same thing," Dickey said.

And if that day should come, there should be little doubt in anyone's mind that Thole can catch in the Major Leagues.

Even -- perhaps especially -- if the pitcher throws a knuckleball.

Kyle Maistri is an associate reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.