Former first-round pick Matt Thaiss was a catcher in college but was drafted more for his bat than his defensive skills. Upon selecting him with the No. 16 overall pick in 2016, the Angels immediately converted Thaiss to a corner infielder. However, manager Joe Maddon tells reporters that Thaiss, who moved back behind the plate in Triple-A this season, will now be considered a full-time catcher (Twitter link via Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register). Thaiss was recalled from Triple-A today, with righty Janson Junk being optioned to Salt Lake in his place.
It’s a notable development for the Angels, who’ll likely entrust Max Stassi with the bulk of the catching workload in 2022 but will also see veteran Kurt Suzuki become a free agent this winter. For now, Thaiss gives the Halos an option to perhaps see some time as a backup next year. However, if he proves to be a passable option behind the dish and can carry over any of his minor league production to the big leagues, Thaiss would give the Angels a potential long-term option at catcher.
That’s a tall order for a player who didn’t receive great reviews for his defense at catcher even dating back to his college days at the University of Virginia. Baseball America noted in 2016, when ranking Thaiss as the No. 28 prospect in the draft, that he had “more than enough arm for the position, but many scouts aren’t sold on his receiving and blocking skills despite the work he’s put into both.” He was regarded as a polished hitter but one who was best-suited for a position change. The Angels clearly agreed, as Thaiss didn’t catch a single game in their system until earlier this year.
Thaiss has yet to provide much offense in the big leagues, although he hasn’t had much of a look — just 196 plate appearances in that three-year span. He’s walked in 11.2 percent of those plate appearances, connected on nine homers and struck out at a 31.1 percent clip. The overall .201/.291/.397 slash isn’t good, but there’s some obvious power and a knack for drawing walks with Thaiss. His small sample of MLB work paints the portrait of a three-true-outcomes slugger, but strikeouts haven’t been a major issue for Thaiss in the upper minors. He’s fanned in 18.3 percent of his Triple-A plate appearances over three seasons and, this year, is slashing a very solid .280/.383/.496 with 17 long balls in 449 trips to the plate.
The move to catcher, in some ways, is partly out of necessity. The presence of Jared Walsh, Shohei Ohtani and (until he was released in May) Albert Pujols cut into any available at-bats at first base or designated hitter. The signing of Anthony Rendon nixed any chances of Thaiss becoming a long-term option at the hot corner. Thaiss could’ve conceivably been a fill-in at third this season, given Rendon’s injuries, but he’s instead been honing his catching skills down in Triple-A. It’s a small sample of just 54 games, but Baseball Prospectus gives Thaiss solid marks both in framing and blocking. He’s thwarted just 20 percent of stolen base attempts (12 of 60). It’s a work in progress.
Thaiss’ defensive development (or lack thereof) as a catcher carries some long-term implications. While the incumbent Stassi has enjoyed a quietly hit .256/.340/.463 with 20 homers in 415 plate appearances since Opening Day 2020 — a breakout that should really garner more attention than it has — he’s also on pace to be a free agent after the 2022 campaign. There’s an opportunity for Thaiss to make the necessary improvements and position himself as a plausible successor to Stassi, so it’s well worth keeping an eye on his progress behind the dish over the next year. If he’s unable to make the adjustment, he’d be out of minor league options by the time 2023 rolls around, clouding his outlook with the Halos.