One of the toughest jobs for any Cincinnati Bearcat this spring was the one Joey Thomas inherited. Thomas, a junior from Mason, Ohio, was tasked with replacing Woody Wallace, a team leader and mainstay at catcher for the Bearcats the last few years. Although Wallace’s senior year didn’t feature a terrifying slash line (.221/.283/.341), but he was one of few power threats on the roster and, more importantly, it was his work behind the plate that stood out.
In 2016, Thomas played in 19 games and started nine times as Wallace’s understudy and didn’t exactly amaze, especially at the dish. In 43 at-bats he batted .209 with two extra-base hits while walking just once and striking out 16 times. That lack of bat-on-ball skills made it a precarious proposition when considering Thomas as the starting catcher in 2017. However, that didn’t mean Ty Neal was going to look for other options, as Thomas won the starting gig and has held it all year.
Thomas has certainly taken steps forward offensively. He is slashing .277/.320/.342 and has ripped 10 extra-base hits. His power numbers are not ideal, as his slugging falls into slap-hitting-leadoff man territory, and he has yet to homer on the campaign. Still, for a UC team that has not hit for average as a whole, a .277 average and an on-base percentage above .300 is just fine.
However, Thomas’ work with the bat is not what has made him one of the more critical players for UC. Instead, it has been his ability to play defense from behind the plate. While I do not have the mathematical skills to calculate wins above replacement, there is no question that Thomas would be one of those players that hits OK but defends so well that he still posts a respectable number. The study of catcher fielding stats is one that has taken a rise in importance of late, with teams beginning to put more emphasis on pitch framing and defense from catchers, who usually have more of an impact in that part of the game than the offensive side. That is just fine, as teams are willing to sacrifice pop for solid game-calling, framing and other such defensive metrics as run prevention can be just as important as run creation.
For UC, Thomas has provided tremendous value even if he didn’t have a hot start like A.J. Bumpass, hit like R.J. Thompson or thump it like Ryan Noda and that’s because of his defensive play. The Bearcats, who are the best fielding team in the American Athletic Conference by fielding percentage, are anchored by Thomas, who doesn’t make many mistakes and even helps his pitchers avoid some. UC hurlers have only thrown eight passed balls this season, showing that Thomas does what it takes to get in front of errant pitches when they come. Its worth noting that Thomas does have five errors on the year, but his .983 fielding percentage is still solid.
What has been more important, however, has been Thomas’ arm. There have been 49 stolen base attempts against Thomas this season and Thomas has thrown out 24 of them. Those 24 caught stealing leads the AAC, with Memphis’ Jason Santana, who players have attempted to steal on 10 more times than Thomas, the only other player with more than 20.
When this season is finally in the books, players like Bumpass, Thompson, Noda and Connor McVey will be the ones who get remembered the most, but Thomas deserves credit for what he has done, even if it doesn’t stand out on a box score all the time.