Class is starting. Sit up straight. Get rid of the gum and pay attention.
08/23/2010 5:06 PM ET
Thole heeds Blanco's advice
Young catcher developing with veteran's help
By Hal Bock / MLBPLAYERS.com
Back in Spring Training, the Mets turned young catcher Josh Thole over to veteran catcher Henry Blanco. The idea was that the 39-year-old Blanco, who began his professional career when Thole was 4 years old, could help mold the youngster's skills.
"He works with me every day," said Thole, who began catching just two years ago. "I pick his brain. I'm always asking him questions. We talk about calling a game, about how to work hitters. He's helped me with my throwing and with my footwork.
"He's like a professor of catching."
Professor Blanco signed his first professional contract in 1990 and played for seven Major League clubs before joining the Mets. The team signed him as much for his ability to tutor young players as anything else. With the third highest percentage for throwing out base stealers among active catchers, the Mets thought he could teach Thole a thing or two.
And he has. "When you've been through it as long as he has, talking to someone like that makes it easier," Thole said.
Catching has been an issue for the Mets since Mike Piazza left the team in 2005f. Paul Lo Duca held down the job for a couple of years and then Brian Schneider, Omir Santos and Ramon Castro also saw time. The Mets signed Blanco and Rod Barajas last winter, but the thinking has been that the long-term solution would be Thole.
When Barajas was claimed off waivers by the Dodgers on Sunday, Thole effectively became the Mets' No. 1 catcher.
The Mets signed Thole in 2005 as a first baseman and decided three years later to convert him into a catcher. "The organization suggested the switch in May of 2008," he said. He has been a work in progress behind the plate since then. And now Blanco is in charge of the progress.
Part of the program includes having Thole hone his skills playing winter ball in Blanco's native Venezuela. Some players have experienced dicey moments in Winter League ball, but Thole said his time was all positive.
"I was nervous at first about going, but the team I played for takes care of its guys," he said. "I had my fiancée with me, and she walked around by herself but felt perfectly safe. You try to take care. You don't walk in bad areas after dark the same as you wouldn't walk in bad areas after dark here.
"It was a fantastic experience. The people were great to us. They treated us unbelievably well. I had a great time."
On the field, Thole thrived in winter ball, batting .381 with 28 RBIs in 44 games for Leones del Caracas, the league champions. It was a continuation of his productive hitting which began at about the same time as he started catching. He hit .300 at Class A Port St. Lucie in his first year behind the plate and then was leading the Eastern League, hitting .328 for Binghamton before the Mets promoted him at the end of last season. He batted .317 with New York in that sample and was around .300 after his midseason callup this year.
Don't expect the long ball from Thole, who has never hit more than five home runs in a season. He chokes up a bit on the bat. "I take my base hits," he said. "I don't try to do too much. I'm not going to be a power hitter."
That's OK with the Mets. They'll take Thole's offense just the way it is and depend on Blanco to refine his catching skills. On that front, Thole will return to Venezuela for a month or so after this season to do some more work on his catching.
"I'll be back with the same team," he said. "I'll probably stay for a month."
That's because Thole has some other important business in the offseason. "I'm getting married in December," he said.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.