When Johan Santana went down for at least the first half of the regular season, there was only one…
Catching is a Thole Road For Mets in 2011
Mets fans likely will hope so, at least on behalf of Josh Thole, the team's number one catcher going into spring training. Because he did the deed this past offseason and got married.
In truth, marriage and catching have no correlation (see Mike Piazza), but for the Mets' newest chief backstop, his newly settled household stands to aid his work efforts in his quest to be an even more consistent caller of the game, and a better hitter at the plate.
"Oh, yeah," Thole admitted during a winter appearance in New York. "It's good to get all that out of the way, and I'm just so happy with the way things worked out, so now I can concentrate on playing and being more consistent."
The 24-year-old catcher, who will always have a Mets connection since birth – he was born the day after the Mets won Game 7 of the 1986 World Series; October 28 – already has impressed management and Mets fans in limited play over the past two seasons. As a September call-up in 2009, Thole batted .321 in 17 games, with 17 hits and nine runs batted in. Recalled last June, Thole continued his rise and learning curve, batting .277 in 73 games – 61 behind the plate – with three home runs and 17 RBI.
And just as importantly, the staff was impressed with his work ethic and ability to call a game, which led to the Mets trade of Rod Barajas late last season, and their decision to not resign veteran backstop Henry Blanco in the offseason.
Opening Day starter Mike Pelfrey noticed marked improvement over the course of the season, and is looking forward to throwing to Thole this year.
"He's good," Pelfrey remarked about his new steady target. "He was a guy who I threw a little to before and thought he was okay. Then he got better and last year, he got better and better. He's easy to work with and he works hard. It's a credit to him. I think he's great now."
Thole exhibited a tremendous affinity for catching R.A. Dickey and his tricky knuckleballs. It's a testimony to Thole's willingness to be flexible to the talent on the mound. When asked if he thought this spring might be a little easier to take, knowing he's numero uno from the outset, Thole acknowledged his status has instead ratcheted his work log up a few notches.
"I don't ever want to take anything for granted," Thole stated. "Oh, sure, it's nice that maybe I'll be called upon a little more often, but it means I've got to become more consistent in everything I do, calling a game, learning to be more consistent at the plate, avoid some of the mistakes I've made."
And those mistakes were few. Thole committed just three errors in 373 chances last year (467.1 innings), for a .992 field percentage. Some 25 runners tried to steal on him, but he nailed 11 of them for a 44 percent success rate.
New Mets manager Terry Collins might not need Thole to gain more winter ball experience (he played in Venezuela this winter) if he continues his growth pattern. Collins is slotting Thole to catch about 90 to 100 games, with incoming veteran Ronny Paulino targeted for the balance.
"J.T. keeps getting better and better," Collins beamed. "You can't out-work him. He'll get his share of games behind the plate. But Paulino is a pretty good player, too, and he can hit."
But for not the first eight games of the season. Paulino will be completing the back end of a 50-game suspension from last season after popping a positive drug test which found a banned substance in his system. This might open an opportunity for another young catcher in the Mets' system, such as Mike Nickeas or non-roster invitees Dusty Ryan or veteran Raul Chavez. Somebody else will be shipping their catching gear north from Port St. Lucie to tandem with Thole, that's for sure.
The newlywed, however, is preparing himself for a heavy workload. "I'm ready. I've been working with all the starters and developing good relationships with the guys. The veterans have been a tremendous help. I want this to be a smooth transition, to go out on a daily basis and develop a consistency, and know that I can be counted on."
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