Thole gaining firm grasp of catcher's role

Thole gaining firm grasp of catcher's role

Thole gaining firm grasp of catcher's role
JUPITER, Fla. -- Josh Thole had already progressed beyond the estimations of many around baseball when, in the fall of 2009, he made a significant mistake. After introducing himself to the big leagues with 11 hits in his first eight games, Thole had begun to scuffle ever so slightly. And he was making his frustration plainly apparent with his body language on defense.

Taking notice was Brian Schneider, a veteran catcher who, at the time, was losing at-bats to the rookie.

"He got into me pretty good," Thole recalled. "He said, 'You've got to quit feeling sorry for yourself -- you're a catcher. You can't let the pitchers know that you're down in the dumps when you're not hitting well.' And ever since that day, I've been concentrating on my catching."

Avoiding conflict with pitchers is now one of Thole's three annual goals (hitting .300 and throwing out 40 percent of would-be basestealers are the others). And Thole credits much of his ability to do so to Schneider, the first in a line of big league mentors that has since included Henry Blanco and Rod Barajas.

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"I feel like I knew better," Thole said of his sulking that September. "It was one of those things that I knew I should not be doing it, but I was."

Such basic instruction is no longer needed for Thole, now 24 years old and the backbone of the battery. The Mets never seriously looked into acquiring a starting catcher this winter, preferring to use this season as a test for their own young backstop. Coming off a strong rookie campaign in which he hit .277, learned the art of catching a knuckleball and continued to improve his footwork and defense, Thole has become the Mets' unquestioned starting catcher. And he will remain such until he proves he cannot handle the responsibility.

Few anticipate that happening, for the simple reason that Thole has handled everything else.

When Mets scouts first began taking notice of Thole around seven years ago, he was, by most accounts, a catcher in name only. In the organization's estimation, in fact, he was a high school hitter who just so happened to catch -- and not particularly well.

Critical in those early days, then, was Thole's ability to relearn the position. The Mets stripped him down, built him back up, strapped on shin guards and stuck him behind the plate. Then they began firing fastballs and curveballs at him, changeups and sliders.

"A lot of balls hitting the back of the fence," was how catching coordinator Bob Natal described it. "Ping! Ping!"

Natal, who mentored Thole throughout those early days, jokingly compared him to a bridesmaid because he was so young, so eager -- "thirsting for knowledge" while he waited for his opportunity amid a crowded crop of catchers. That opportunity finally came as a 21-year-old in 2008, when the Mets promoted Thole to their top Class A affiliate in Port St. Lucie, Fla., despite a mediocre offensive season the year before.

"I wasn't surprised, because I know how hard he works. But I'll tell you what -- I was impressed."
-- R.A. Dickey, on Thole's
learning to catch his knuckler

Thole hit an even .300 that summer, finally displaying a modicum of power and rewarding the organization's faith with his improvement behind the plate. Moving up three levels the following season, Thole advanced all the way to the Majors.

It was not until last spring, however, that he entrenched himself in the Mets' plans by developing a rare skill: the ability to catch a knuckleball. Working with R.A. Dickey in the Minors, Thole again ran smack into a steep learning curve -- Ping! Ping! -- but eventually learned to handle that pitch, as well.

"I wasn't surprised, because I know how hard he works," Dickey said. "But I'll tell you what -- I was impressed."

The other members of New York's pitching staff heap similar praise upon Thole, in large part because of his work ethic. Most days in Spring Training, he is the first player in camp, swinging the door open around 6:45 a.m. for 9:30 workouts. His demeanor has earned him a certain status here, even among teammates with years more experience. No longer does Thole defer to his pitchers in deciding game plans, or shirk away from adverse situations, or drag his frustrations onto the field. And no longer do outsiders refer to Thole as a "former first baseman."

Now, he's just a catcher.

"Obviously his mechanics are better and he's worked really hard in every facet of being a catcher," pitcher Dillon Gee said. "But a lot of it is just confidence."

For Thole, that much is readily apparent. He is comfortable in his own skin now in a way he never was before. He got married in upstate New York's Finger Lakes region over the winter, honeymooned in Angola and bought a house in Arizona.

Thole's locker has also become the focal point of the clubhouse this spring -- a gathering place for catchers, pitchers and coaches alike. Most mornings, Thole will sit unmoving on his chair -- sometimes reading a book, but mostly holding court with whomever passes by.

Early one morning this week, some commotion bubbled up on the pack of bullpen mounds closest to the clubhouse. It was Thole, of course. A large group of players and coaches was whooping and laughing when one stepped aside, revealing the catcher in the midst of an animated story about hitting coach Dave Hudgens.

Seeing Thole in such context -- in such comfort, really -- makes it difficult to imagine him crouching behind home plate not six years ago, footwork all askew, balls whizzing past him and pinging against the fence.

"I couldn't catch a baseball, much less run a pitching staff," Thole said, thinking back on his early frustrations. "From that point on to now, it's incredible. It's a dream come true."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.