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Josh Thole's No Good Very Bad Season

Josh Thole was a complete and utter train wreck in 2013. What, exactly, went wrong?

Otto Greule Jr

When Josh Thole came to Toronto he did so as a minor part of the R.A. Dickey trade and as such his arrival was not greeted with a lot of fanfare. He was quickly signed to a two year contract and it appeared that he was well on his way to becoming the Blue Jays backup catcher. While has was coming off a season where he had hit for a dreadful line of .234/.294/.290 the thought was that this could be attributed to his concussion problems. The idea of Thole slowly grew on Blue Jays fans as a guy who'd had a couple of decent seasons at the plate in 2010 and 2011. Additionally he was the anti-Arencibia, a left handed hitter with patience but no power. Even before J.P.'s awful 2013 season the idea of an anti-Arencibia was kind of appealing. It was theorized that Thole could even get a few starts against tough right handers and work his way into some kind of timeshare.

In Spring Training those hopes were dashed. The geriatric Henry Blanco laid claim to a job as the backup catcher/R.A Dickey's caddy and Thole was shipped off to Buffalo. In AAA something very interesting happened, Thole began mashing the ball. In 167 plate appearances Thole hit 7 home runs, more than he had ever hit in a calendar year at any level, and produced a sterling .322/.383/.510 line. #FreeThole became a little bit of a thing on twitter as Blue Jays fans watched their decrepit backup catcher flounder and their impatient starter struggle. It seemed like Thole's 2012 was in the past and he was flashing interesting power to go along with the patience he had always displayed. As it turned out, Thole was on the cusp of disappointing a lot of people.

As a quick review here is what Josh Thole did for the Blue Jays in 2013:





















That is some serious ugliness. The good news is that it is contained within a very small sample size. Thole isn't this bad because basically no one is this bad, at least no one who has had success in the majors before like Thole has. So what exactly happened here? Before we dive in you should note that there is massive small sample size warning for this journey. I should probably be handing out waivers.

The first thing that jumps out about this line is the miniscule BABIP. It's clear that Josh Thole had some back luck here with ball not falling in for hits. However, batters often have the ability to make their own luck and Thole did not do so last season. The following spray chart shows where Thole struck the ball in 2013:

Thole almost never pulled the ball with authority last year. This picture looks like it could be the chart of someone struggling to catch up with the fastball. Although he has always been an opposite field hitter (He has a wRC+ of 98 both pulling the ball and going the other way in his career.), he's not exactly Adrian Gonzalez. Here is what his career spray chart going into 2013 looks like:

This chart is far more even. Although it is clear that Thole experienced some bad luck in 2013, the fact that virtually none of his ground balls to the right side went through the infield stands out as an example, he simply wasn't hitting the ball hard. Pulling the ball is the most reliable way to get create offense (league wRC+ on balls that were pulled was 161 in 2013) and Thole just wasn't pulling the ball. He's never going to be a power hitter but he's never going to get by on exclusively slapping the ball the other way either.

Another problem that Josh Thole had last year in 2013 was a rising strikeout rate. At 18.5% Thole's K% was actually below league average but it was well above his career rate of 13.1%. Strangely, his Swinging Strike % was 4.9% which was way below the MLB average of 9.3% and even below Thole's career average of 5%. In fact, out of the 420 players with at least 130 PA Thole's swinging strike rate was the 36th best. Thole managed the intriguing feat of striking out without whiffing.

My first thought was that perhaps Thole was striking out looking a great deal. That would make sense given Thole's general passivity at the plate, but it wasn't really the case. In fact 24% of Thole's strikeouts came looking which was exactly the league average. Apparently, Thole's real problem was sequencing. In two strike counts his Swinging Strike % rose to 11.7% leading to his inflated strikeout rate. You would expect more swinging strikes with 2 strikes because hitters are swinging to protect the plate, but an increase of that magnitude is probably the result of small sample sizes leading to strange results.

At the end of the day Josh Thole's 2013 was probably more of a small sample size glitch than anything else. A lot of wild things can happen in 135 plate appearances and it appears that in this case they did. Although we can explain a couple of the things that lead to his dismal line, such as his two strike stuggles and failure to pull the ball, it's difficult to tell if they will be issues going forward. More likely than not they are just blips on the radar. It's not as if Thole is going to rebound to be some kind of offensive dynamo but the tolerable .245/.318/.349 line that Steamer projects for him sounds about right.

Thole's role on this team is a small one and most of it involves not chasing too many knuckleballs to the backstop. If he can keep R.A. Dickey's pitches in front of him he will be considered a success. Josh Thole is no elite catch-and-throw guy but he did gun out base runners at a league average clip last season and he didn't embarass himself while donning the tools of ignorance. The same can't be said for his foray into first basemanship, but the less said about that the better. Thole is nothing more than a backup catcher with a very specific job. Whatever a guy like that does at the plate is something of a bonus. There is no way he can be as poor at the plate as he was in 2013. It's almost literally impossible.