When the Toronto Blue Jays traded 2 of their top 3 prospects for R.A. Dickey, a common reaction was that they gave up a lot for a 38 year old knuckle baller. To be fair, it was a steep price and the value of improving an 85 win team is far greater then improving a 72 win team (in theory). This piece is not about R.A. Dickey though, nor is it about what the Jays gave up. This is about Josh Thole who could end up being a more valuable player in this trade than anyone thought at first.
When one looks at Thole’s career offensive numbers they seem pretty lackluster, even after adjusting for the spacious Citi Field, but let us look deeper into the numbers and give them some context.
Thole has never shown an ability to hit for power at any level, his highest Isolated Power was at AAA in 2010 where he posted a .164 mark. While he doesn’t hit for power, he’s always posted above average walk rates through his minor league career and in the Majors. In the majors it is slightly buoyed by batting in front of the pitcher (11 of his 13 career intentional walks have come when batting eighth). Removing those intentional walks drop his career walk rate from 9.1% to 8.0% (8.0% is league average for a hitter). We can assume that adjusting for unintentional-intentional walks (i.e. instances where the pitcher is clearly intending on walking the batter without actually making it intentional) would produce a similar OBP for Thole as if he were to go 0-for-11 in those plate appearances.
A little Player A/PlayerB for why nots:
Player A in his 2 non-injured or fulltime seasons has an OPS+ of 96.
Player B in his 2 non-injured or fulltime seasons has an OPS+ of 90.
In case you didn’t guess, player A is Josh Thole in his 187 starts between 2010 and 2011 and player B is J.P. Arencibia in 2011 and 2012. When it comes to Josh Thole’s 2012 numbers though, there is a huge drop from his previous career numbers. He walked less, hit for less power and struck out more than the previous years and his OPS+ dropped from 96 to a lowly 63. It seems as though this was a problem of approach. He was swinging at more pitches out of the zone, making less contact on pitches in the zone and saw his swinging strike rate climb from 4.1% in 2010 to 5.9% in 2012. There are a couple of interesting theories for this change. Over at Amazin’ Avenue, Rob Castellano wrote about how Thole’s season really went downhill after a plate collision on May 7. When Thole went on the DL with a concussion, he had a triple slash of .284/.356/.370, which compared pretty favourably with his 2010-11 triple slash (.270/.350/.352). When he returned on June 1st, and until the end of the season he posted a putrid .217/.273/.263 line. As Rob points out in his piece (with some purty graphics), all of Thole’s plate discipline numbers plummeted after his concussion. Even if cleared to play a concussion can affect a hitter and take time to get over. Another interesting thought, is that in mid-2012 it was rumored that the Mets were tinkering with Thole’s swing, trying to get him to hit for more power. One or both of these reasons could have some impact on his poor season, though as always, just over a month of good production in 2012 is a small sample size, and that cannot be ignored. While the overall numbers look solid, it should be brought up that Thole has putrid splits, with a 55 OPS+ vs. LHP and 108 vs. RHP. This leads to some interesting thoughts that will come up later in this piece.
Another aspect that Thole brings is solid defense from the catcher position. While defensive metrics for catchers are pretty unreliable, they can provide some insight into what is going on behind the plate. When it comes to blocking pitches, Thole has a career 0.4 RPP, while J.P. Arencibia has an RPP of -4.1. For those unfamiliar with RPP, it is a creation of Bojan Koprivica. It measures how many runs above, or below, average a player is at blocking pitches. It should be noted that Thole has done this while catch 66 games of angry knuckleballs from R.A. Dickey.
When it comes to throwing out runners, Thole has been below average for his career, posting a CS% of just over 25%, and a rSB (runs saved due to CS or preventing SB tries) of -5 in nearly 2200 innings behind the plate. Comparing again to Arencibia, we see that J.P. has a -8 rSB and a CS% of just under 27%. Last but not least with defense, we come to one of my favourite new stats, the quantification of pitch framing. In 2012, J.P. Arencibia was the worst pitch framer in baseball worth -20 runs in that category, while I find that a little high (the value of it all, not that Arencibia wasn’t the worst), I definitely agree with what the metrics say on this front, and Thole was considered an “average”* pitch framer in 2012.
*Although the actual numbers have not yet been released to the public.
If you’re familiar with my work/Twitter profile, you probably know that I’m not the biggest Arencibia fan and it shouldn’t shock you that I believe Thole is a better all-around catcher. As for my two cents on what to do with the catching situation, I’d say platoon them, Arencibia has had his issues with right handed hurlers, as Thole has had vs. left handed ones. I would have Thole catch any R.A. Dickey game (regardless of pitcher handed-ness) and in the games in which the opposing pitcher is left-handed slot Arencibia into the DH role, filling the right handed portion of the DH platoon, thus eliminating Adam Lind at bats vs. LHP. When a right hander is on the hill, send Thole out there behind the plate and Arencibia can catch when Left handers take the mound (provided Dickey is not pitching). With the Jays in win-now mode, they need every advantage they can get.