Commentary

Mets search for root of Thole slump

Catching knuckleballs may have crossed up the young New York catcher

Updated: May 6, 2011, 8:02 AM ET
By Adam Rubin | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Josh Thole knew his honeymoon could not last forever. He was not referring to his December marriage to wife Kathryn, either.

Rather, the catcher meant his can-do-no-wrong relationship with New York Mets fans inevitably would run its course.

Not that he expected anything less. After all, Thole has a .253 average, major league-high seven passed balls and 18 of 22 runners have successfully stolen against him.

"I feel like the honeymoon stage in New York is over," Thole volunteered.

He then recalled popping out on a bunt attempt and heading back to the dugout.

"All I see is 15 people yelling and screaming to me," Thole said. "You sit back and go, 'That's the big leagues. This is what it's about.'"

Even after knuckleballer R.A. Dickey departed Tuesday's game, Thole's struggles persisted. He flat-out missed one eighth-inning pitch from Jason Isringhausen to Cody Ross that might have been called a strike if cleanly caught and framed for the umpire. At the plate, Thole left the bases loaded in the ninth inning by grounding into a double play.

Manager Terry Collins then gave Thole consecutive games off to regroup. Collins expects Thole will return to the starting lineup Friday for the series opener against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Citi Field.

So Thole will not have a perfect career in New York, just like neither David Wright nor Jose Reyes has enjoyed a bump-free road. The challenge for Collins and catching instructor Jon Debus is to make Thole better behind the plate. And that apparently means limiting Thole's exposure to Dickey's knuckleball, at least outside of games.

The prevailing theory is that Thole has displayed bad habits while catching the entire staff -- such as stabbing at pitches with his glove -- because of his involvement catching Dickey's knuckleball. And because Thole does not have the catching experience to fall back upon, he may be more susceptible to drifting away from proper technique.

Thole was a catcher through high school while growing up in Breese, Ill. But the 13th-round pick in 2005 caught a total of 26 games during his first three professional seasons. He returned from first base to primarily catching in May 2008 after the first-string catcher at Class A St. Lucie got off to a terrible start at the plate.

Now, the Mets plan to limit Thole's catching of Dickey's knuckleball outside of games to guard against him getting into bad habits.

"It's a completely different thing," Debus said, contrasting catching Dickey's knuckleball with receiving traditional offerings. "I'm not sure that's not screwing him up sometimes. There's a lot of stabbing and a lot of grabbing stuff [with the knuckleball]. And that's what he's doing. Maybe we've just got to limit the amount of times he catches it, like in bullpens.

[+] EnlargeJosh Thole
AP Photo/Kathy WillensThole's frustrations are both at and behind the plate.

"He's caught 300 baseball games in his life. It's like anything else -- when you don't have those years of a base, when things go bad, it's hard to find home. That's what he's going through now. It's a little bit harder for him, but he's fine."

Dickey and Debus on Thursday discussed Thole not catching Dickey's bullpen sessions.

Said Thole: "I said, 'I don't think that's an issue with the streak I'm going through.' But if that's what he thinks is best for me, then that's what we're going to do."

As for Collins holding him out of the starting lineup in consecutive games, only in the latter game with the Mets facing a left-hander, Thole said: "Don't get me wrong, nobody wants to have a day off, much less two days off. But I went down to the bullpen and caught some of the guys down there [Chris Young and Ryota Igarashi] and just got used to seeing the ball, catching the baseball, that kind of stuff. That was more beneficial than me just sitting in the dugout, not doing anything. I caught some bullpens yesterday, caught off the machine, and I started feeling, I guess you can say, back to normal. I just think it was a bad streak. My receiving mechanics are off. It's making me late to balls."

Dickey, like Thole, was not so sure his knuckleball was screwing Thole up, but did explain the difference in catching techniques.

"When you catch a knuckleballer, you really have to wait for the ball to come to you. You can't go out to get it or it'll break and you'll be chasing balls all day," Dickey said. "The set-up is a little bit different. You want to be in the most comfortable position that allows your hands to really work, whereas with a conventional guy you can really be locked in and stable. I [require] a bigger glove, one that he may not be as comfortable with.

"There is a different mentality, and there are some things from a technique standpoint that you probably do differently in catching a conventional guy. But, at the same time, he did a fantastic job last year in both roles. I don't know if you can necessarily pin any of his struggles on that fact, that he's catching me and then having to catch other guys. He did it really well last year."

Regardless, Thole never expected to be adversity-free during his major league career. Speaking about the immunity from hostility early in his career, he said: "You're the young guy. It goes away."

Adam Rubin has covered the Mets since 2003. He's a graduate of Mepham High School on Long Island and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He joined ESPNNewYork after spending 10 years at the New York Daily News.
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