Josh Thole trudged his way to his stall located in the far reaches of the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse, which was mostly deserted late Thursday morning – and that was a blessing.
The backup catcher has somehow secured a spot in the room’s high-rent district, which includes seating for Josh Donaldson and Marcus Stroman, two of the team’s more animated characters here as spring training continues its meandering pace.
The area is way, way back in a corner, mostly away from the prying eyes of the media. Equally important to its inhabitants, the lockers are in close proximity to the showers and the lunchroom.
As Thole took his seat, Donaldson and Stroman lurked just behind, captivated by a grand-looking new driver they took turns swinging as if they were teeing it up on the 18th hole at Augusta National Golf Club.
None of the three had to make the trek to Bradenton, where the Blue Jays held on for a 10-8 Grapefruit League triumph over the Pittsburgh Pirates in an afternoon contest.
Thole seemed unfazed by the dangerous activity unfolding just a few metres from his noggin, his mind still rather pumped from a vigorous round of batting practice – outdoors – where he pounded ball after ball over the right-field wall at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.
“That felt good out there,” Thole conceded as Stroman whooped it up in the background after whacking an imaginary drive up the imaginary clubhouse fairway.
This is a big year for the 29-year-old catcher, who is aching to show he is more than merely the personal catcher for knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey.
It is a term that Thole has had to come to live with simply because when it comes to taming the unpredictable nature of Dickey’s signature pitch, nobody has been able to do it better. Thole begrudgingly wears the moniker as best he can. He’s proud of his ability to handle a former Cy Young Award winner and the fact he has caught close to 70 per cent of Dickey’s 192 starts over the past six years.
But Thole also feels he’s been a bit pigeonholed as a one-dimensional performer since he came to Toronto, along with Dickey, in a trade with the New York Mets ahead of the 2013 season.
“I was playing every day in New York, so I went from being an everyday player to a role player [in Toronto] essentially because of the trade,” Thole said. “Again, when I came over here, I knew my role.
“There are critics in this game no matter what, no matter … if you’re playing well or if you’re playing every fifth day. You try to block it out.”
Dickey believes that Thole has come into some unfair criticism for circumstances that are beyond his control.
“I don’t remember many people getting all over Doug Mirabelli when he was with the Boston Red Sox and they were winning world championships and he was the personal catcher to Tim Wakefield,” Dickey said.
Playing every fifth day, as Thole does in concert with Dickey’s normal pitching schedule, is not kind to a batter’s offensive rhythms, which require repeated plate appearances to hone the proper timing.
Last season, the arrival of high-priced free-agent catcher Russell Martin – who insisted he would learn the nuances of Dickey’s pitch – cut into Thole’s playing time even more.
After breaking camp with the Blue Jays, Thole only stuck around for a couple of months before he was dispatched to Triple-A, leaving Dioner Navarro to handle all the mop-up duties as backup.
Thole was recalled in late August, primarily to spell a battered and bruised Martin, who needed a break from the agony of tracking Dickey’s knuckleball.
After catching Dickey for each of his 34 starts in 2014 and appearing in a total of 57 games, Thole’s role last season was limited to just 18 games – 13 of them coming in games that the knuckleballer started.
His batting average dipped from .248 in 2014 to .204, and Thole was not on the playoff roster. His name did not even appear in the Blue Jays’ official 2015 season-end review publication.
With Navarro out of the picture this season, the backup job is Thole’s to earn – and his relationship with Dickey gives him a leg up on Humberto Quintero, who is also vying for a job.
But Thole knows that he will have to ramp up the offence and said he totally reconstructed his swing in the off-season for the challenge ahead.
Dickey said it doesn’t matter who’s behind the plate, but he is clearly more comfortable unloading his unpredictable knuckler with Thole on the other end of it.
When Dickey struggles, walks are the primary reason.
Last year, when he was throwing to Martin, Dickey averaged 3.1 walks per nine innings. With Thole in the crouch, that rate dipped to 1.8, a difference of more than one extra baserunner a game.
“That’s a big deal,” Dickey said. “That could be the difference in the game, actually, in a lot of situations.”
Dickey said Thole has the technique, not only to catch the knuckleball, but to do so in a way that often means the difference between a ball and a strike in the eyes of the umpire.
“With a knuckleball, it goes beyond catching it,” Dickey said. “[It’s about] being able to receive the ball in a way that gives the umpire the best look at the strike zone without being all jerky because the pitch is jerky.
“With Josh, he has just really developed a knack for being able to do that.”Report Typo/Error
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