Josh Thole goes into spring training as the odds-on favorite to get the bulk of the playing time at catcher. Even if manager Terry Collins goes to a lefty-righty platoon with Thole and the newly acquired Ronny Paulino, it would be the left-handed hitting Thole getting the lion’s share of at-bats. If Thole can handle the Mets’ pitching staff and can successfully hit major league pitching on a regular basis, he stands to do something that hasn’t been seen in Flushing since the days of Mike Piazza.
The Mets have played musical chairs at a number of positions, most notably at third base (until the arrival of David Wright in 2004) and right field. One position where they’ve had stability over the past half-century is at catcher.
Since 1962, the Mets have used 142 third basemen and 197 rightfielders (soon to be 198 if Carlos Beltran moves over to right). But they have only penciled in 81 catchers on their lineup cards, despite it being the most grueling position to play on the field.
It was original Met manager Casey Stengel who once famously said that you have to have a catcher, or else you’re going to have a lot of passed balls. From 1962-1965 (which coincides with the time Casey was the Mets’ skipper), the Mets didn’t have a true #1 catcher, using 14 men at the position. Chris Cannizzaro played the most games at the position over the team’s first four seasons, but that only added up to 236 games. It wasn’t until 1966, when Jerry Grote was traded to the Mets from the Houston Astros, that the Mets could boast finally having an everyday catcher. And once Grote took over the job, the catcher’s position became as stable as any on the Mets.
From 1966-1976, Grote caught 1,176 games, which still represents the most games caught by any player in Mets history. Except for the 1972 season, when he was sidelined by injuries, Grote was the team’s #1 catcher. With the emergence of John Stearns, Grote was deemed expendable, and he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 31, 1977.
John Stearns was the Mets’ regular catcher during the team’s lean years from 1977-1982. In addition, he was also one of the team’s best players, providing some pop (tying for the team lead with 12 HR in 1977 and hitting a career-high 15 HR in 1978) and exceptional speed for a catcher (91 stolen bases as a Met, including 25 SB in 1978). Stearns was the first Mets position player to be selected to four All-Star teams (1977, 1979, 1980, 1982), but his career was cut short by a severe case of elbow tendinitis. Unable to throw, Stearns barely played in 1983 (4 games) and 1984 (8 games), appearing mostly as a pinch-runner.
The main backup catcher for both Grote and Stearns was Ron Hodges. He began his career in 1973 for the “Ya Gotta Believe” Mets, playing in 45 games and walking in his only postseason plate appearance in Game 1 of the World Series. From 1973-1981, Hodges backed up both Grote and Stearns, never appearing in more than 59 games in any season. Then in 1982, he finally got his chance to be the team’s #1 catcher when John Stearns succumbed to his elbow injury. Hodges became the team’s everyday catcher at the end of the 1982 season and continued to hold the position in 1983, before going back to being the #2 guy in 1984 behind Mike Fitzgerald.
After Hodges retired, the top man behind the plate for the Mets became one of the most beloved figures in Mets history. Gary Carter was acquired via a trade with the Montreal Expos prior to the 1985 season and immediately became the best offensive catcher in franchise history. In five years as a Met, Carter caught in 566 games, picking up 89 HR and 349 RBI along the way. He became the first Met to drive in 100 or more runs in back-to-back seasons when he accomplished the feat in 1985 (100 RBI) and 1986 (105 RBI). Along with first baseman Keith Hernandez, Carter was named co-captain of the Mets in 1988, even though he was already on the downside of his Hall of Fame career. Despite this, he was still named to the All-Star team in each of his five seasons in New York.
Once the ’90s began, the Mets returned to the pre-Grote system of “let’s send this guy out there to see how he does”. Most of the time, it was Mackey Sasser who went behind the plate, but his unusual (how shall we say this politely) “throwing disability” prevented him from ever taking over the everyday job. It wasn’t until 1992 when a homegrown talent took the position and made it his own.
After a few brief appearances in 1990 (36 games) and 1991 (21 games), Todd Hundley became the Mets’ #1 catcher in 1992 at the tender age of 22. He went through the usual growing pains in his first full season as a Met, hitting .209, with 7 HR and 32 RBI. But as he got older, his power made its presence felt. From 1993-1995, Hundley averaged 14 HR and 49 RBI, numbers that would have been higher had the players’ strike not wiped out parts of the 1994 and 1995 seasons. Then came 1996, the year Todd Hundley broke out in a major way.
In his fifth full season in the major leagues, Hundley obliterated his previous career highs in home runs and RBI. He became the first player in franchise history to surpass the 40 HR mark in 1996, and his 41 bombs set the all-time major league record for home runs by a catcher (which was surpassed by the Braves’ Javy Lopez in 2003). He also recorded 112 RBI, which at the time, was the most by any catcher in Mets’ history. Hundley followed up his record-setting season with another good year, although not quite at his 1996 levels. He became the first Mets catcher to record back-to-back seasons with 30 or more homers in 1997, when he finished with 30 HR and 86 RBI. Unfortunately, that would be his last full season as a Met, as injuries limited Hundley to 53 games in 1998. However, the Mets did have a good backup plan, one that involved a certain trade with the Florida Marlins.
On May 22, 1998, the Mets traded Preston Wilson, Ed Yarnall and Geoff Goetz to the Florida Marlins for a catcher who had only been in Florida for one week. He went on to become the best hitting catcher, and perhaps the best hitter, in franchise history. That catcher was Mike Piazza.
Piazza heard some boos early on from the Shea Stadium crowd. After all, he only drove in 20 runs over his first 47 games in New York, far less than the numbers he was accustomed to posting. Then Piazza caught fire, and he took the team with him. Over his final 62 games (57 starts), Piazza hit .362, had an on-base percentage of .434 and a slugging percentage of .670. He hit 19 doubles, 16 HR and drove in 56 runs over that two-month stretch. Amazingly, his power did not come along with a high strikeout total, as Piazza whiffed a mere 26 times over his final 62 games. Piazza did not lead the Mets to the postseason in 1998, but he was able to carry them into October the following two years, including the franchise’s fourth World Series appearance in 2000. In 2001, the Mets were struggling before September 11. After the season resumed on September 17, Piazza put the team on his back and almost led them back to the playoffs. Over the team’s final 16 games, Piazza hit .364. He picked up 12 extra-base hits (seven doubles, five homers) and drove in 16 runs.
The 2002 season began a downward turn for Piazza, as he went from out-of-this-world numbers for a catcher to just very good numbers. Although he still had 33 HR and 98 RBI, he failed to hit .300 for the first time since in a full season, finishing the year with a .280 batting average. Piazza rejoined the human race from 2003-2005, averaging 17 HR and 50 RBI, to go with a .265 batting average. Despite his return back to Earth, Piazza still finished his Mets career with 220 HR and 655 RBI, numbers that rank him near the top of the franchise leaderboard.
For 40 seasons (1966-2005), the Mets basically used only six catchers (Grote, Stearns, Hodges, Carter, Hundley, Piazza). However, since Piazza played his last game as a Met in 2005, no Mets catcher has been the #1 guy behind the plate for more than two seasons. It’s now up to Josh Thole to bring stability back to a position that was known for it throughout the majority of the team’s existence.
Thole has already proven he can handle a major league pitching staff. In 73 games last season, Thole’s catcher’s ERA (which calculates the ERA of the Mets’ pitchers while Thole is catching them) was 3.58, which was lower than the overall team ERA of 3.73. He has also shown he can get on base. In 255 career plate appearances, Thole’s batting average is .286 and his on-base percentage is .357. In fact, Thole’s OBP would have led the Mets in 2010 had he registered enough at-bats.
For now, the future for the Mets at the catcher’s position lies in the hands of Josh Thole. As long as he plays the way he is capable of playing, the 24-year-old Thole could join the exclusive list of catchers who have enjoyed great success behind the plate for the Mets. A long run at the catcher’s position hasn’t been seen since 2005. It’s time for Thole to bring back stability behind the plate.