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Why Josh Thole Makes Some Sense For The Blue Jays

It’s beyond difficult to defend the performance of Josh Thole so far this year. He has one job, and has barely been doing that. Even so, talk among Jays fans of upgrading at backup catcher in the off-season was, to my mind, a waste of breath; as long as R.A. Dickey remained on the roster, so too was Thole assured of a spot as his caddy. Even with Dickey having had his typically putrid April, he’s unlikely to go anywhere. So Jays fans will likely have to suffer through Thole’s pop-gun hitting and spotty receiving for the remainder of the year, all because of his history with Dickey and his role as someone who can (allegedly) catch the knuckleball.

We don’t necessarily need to be happy with Thole as the backup. Again, he has been bad by most measurements this year. But when we break it down, we can find several reasons as to why the Jays were mostly quiet on the backup catcher front this off-season, and why they probably will be during the regular season, barring a disastrous injury or three.

Russell Martin is Really Good

Over his career, Russell Martin has been a great catcher – a rare one who is great both offensively and defensively (even if his hitting so far this season has left a lot to be desired). Prior to the season, PECOTA projected him to be the best catcher in the AL by WARP this year. This is why the Jays signed him to a rich five-year contract prior to last season: To be great. And he was in 2015, finishing with a great-for-a-catcher .240/.329/.458 slash line, 23 home runs, and 77 RBIs.

Martin also continues to be an excellent game-caller. There was some concern coming into this season about Marco Estrada, who mostly pitched to Dioner Navarro last year, and whether he would keep that up with Martin behind the plate. Estrada hasn’t missed a beat, and that’s a credit to both he and Martin, as Joshua Howsam explains.

If Martin gets hurt, Thole can’t replace him. But no one could, reasonably. It’s the same with a lot of the Jays’ star studded roster: Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki, Marcus Stroman, and others. You wouldn’t really replace any of them, either. You could argue that Martin is probably more valuable than any of them, because of his position. At least if Bautista goes down, Dalton Pompey would excite the Canadian flag bearers for a few weeks.

Because of his contract, the Jays want to maximize what they get out of Martin. He ended up playing in 129 games last season, the most he has played since 2012. That also meant having him try to catch R.A. Dickey as they attempted to free themselves from their obligation to have Thole on the major league roster. Unfortunately, Martin and the Jays discovered that catching the knuckleball wasn’t as easy as it looked.

Catching a Knuckleball Is Hard

Martin became a passable receiver for Dickey last year, but it took a toll on him. Kyle Matte (who now writes for BP Toronto) wrote a fantastic piece on Capital Jays about how catching Dickey made Martin much worse on days Dickey started. As Matte laid out, he basically turned into- wait for it- Josh Thole. So, rather than have your really good catcher be bad, why not just have the bad catcher in there, taking the lumps and preserving the health and effectiveness of your star?

The Jays faced Red Sox knuckleballer Steven Wright twice early in the season, and fans got another team’s take on catching the trick pitch. It was interesting to note that he had different catchers each time: Blake Swihart for the first outing, and Ryan Hanigan for the second. Neither seemed to have as much trouble as Thole has this year. This begs the obvious question: CAN anyone catch the knuckleball? Or is there something special about Dickey’s that makes it more difficult?

We need only go back to opening day of 2013, watching J.P. Arencibia flail away behind the dish, to see the potential problems with bringing in a new face to catch the knuckler. It’s a testament to Martin’s ability that he got to the point where we didn’t really notice any struggles he had catching the pitch. But if Martin could be trained up- and Swihart and Hanigan can figure out Wright- could the Jays get someone else?

Most Backup Catchers are Bad

Consider potential knuckleball catchers Swihart and Hanigan: They combined for 0.8 WARP in 118 combined games for the Red Sox last season. Would the Jays be immediately better with either one of them? Probably not. The two of them didn’t even make a win’s difference over the course of two-thirds of a season. Backing up Russell Martin (who, for what it’s worth, had 4.4 WARP in his 2015 season), they’re not going to play enough to budge the needle, based on that pace.

We could also look at the aforementioned Navarro, who started in 2014 and was an overpaid backup last season (mostly because the Jays couldn’t trade him). Though he developed good chemistry with Estrada and Mark Buehrle, he wasn’t good statistically, actually ending up below replacement by WARP during his time in Toronto. Should the Jays have kept him? Not for what it would have cost. He wanted to start, and sure wasn’t going to do that in Toronto. With $82 million invested in their starter, why waste money on Navarro when he didn’t so much as break even?

There are internal options as well, in former prospects Tony Sanchez and A.J. Jimenez, toiling away at AAA Buffalo. They represent hope, and the potential for something more than Josh Thole. But the simplest explanation works here: there’s a reason neither has stuck on a major league roster. Sanchez, a former high pick, couldn’t get a major league deal. The Jays thought so much of Jimenez that he was exiled from the 40 man roster prior to the start of the season, and not a single other team claimed him. Maybe either of them would be better than Thole. But while familiarity with Thole has bred contempt with fans, there was probably some comfort in that familiarity to the current front office. They know what Thole is by now, and the certainty of the role Thole would have on this team. It wasn’t worth change for the sake of change to them.

When we look around the league, we can see there aren’t a lot of a good backup catchers out there. When they do exist, it’s often because the starting catcher isn’t good, or they themselves are on track to starting eventually. For a team like the Jays, who have an elite starting catcher, the backup isn’t a priority. Their goals should be to use Martin as much as they reasonably can, while also protecting the $82 million investment they have in him. In Thole, they have someone who accomplishes both of those things. He gives Martin a scheduled day off, removes the burden of catching the most difficult pitch, and doesn’t make enough money for them to be worried.

Looking at this, we can see why the Jays continue to use Josh Thole, even as we fans clamor for someone, anyone else, on the nights when he flails away both at and behind the plate. The Jays having a knuckleballer is an additional problem (especially when he’s pitching poorly), but also a solution in that it gives Martin a logical, consistent break. As much as the Jays want to use Martin, catchers can’t play every day. No, Thole isn’t good. But most backups aren’t good. And whether the backup is Thole or someone else, he’s not going to be nearly as good as Martin. That’s the situation the Jays are in, and for one day out of five, we can probably live with the drop off.

Lead Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY SPORTS


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