The Angels came into 2023 with an apparent logjam behind the plate, something that MLBTR’s Anthony Franco examined back in February. Prospect Logan O’Hoppe had just been acquired from the Phillies at last year’s deadline and seemed ready for an extended big league audition. Max Stassi was coming off a rough 2022 season but the club committed to him with a $17.5MM extension at the start of that year. With those two seeming to be likeliest candidates for jobs on the major league roster, it looked like Matt Thaiss might get squeezed out.
Thaiss, now 28, had already been through some ups and downs prior to the 2023 season. He was considered a bat-first catcher when the Angels selected him in the first round of the 2016 draft, using the 16th overall pick to nab him. Since his bat was considered his standout tool, they decided to focus on that, moving him to first base and seemingly abandoning the idea of him catching.
He always hit well in the minors, with an overall batting line of .278/.367/.454 in 582 games down on the farm. However, he wasn’t able to hit the ground running in the big leagues. He first reached the majors in July of 2019 but hit just .211/.293/.422 in the second half of that season for a wRC+ of 86. Over the next three years, he would spend the vast majority of his time on optional assignment, only getting into 40 major league games over those campaigns. He struggled in his sporadic chances, hitting .196/.307/.299 for a 74 wRC+.
Coming into 2023, he was out of options on account of languishing in the minors for most of the previous three years, but he was on the catching depth chart again. Although the Angels had initially moved him to first base and had also tried him at third, they moved him back behind the plate in 2021. He got into 54 games as a catcher for Triple-A Salt Lake that year. In 2022, he was behind the plate for 45 more Triple-A games and 14 in the big leagues.
It seemed like a fork in the road was coming at the start of 2023. He was out of options and was blocked by one player with a longer major league track record as well as a younger and shinier prospect. Although Thaiss was a former first-round pick and had plenty of minor league success, it seemed like he was destined to be cut from the roster.
But a couple of plot twists have happened since then. Stassi opened the season on the injured list due to a hip strain and has stayed there due to an undisclosed family situation. That opened a door for Thaiss to stick on the Opening Day roster as O’Hoppe’s backup, but then O’Hoppe landed on the injured list himself just three weeks later. He was diagnosed with a torn labrum in his shoulder that required surgery, putting him out of action for four to six months.
In less than a month, Thaiss went from the roster bubble to the club’s top catching option. No club wants to lose its top two catchers, of course, but at least this finally created some runway for them to see what Thaiss could do in the big leagues.
Thankfully for both him and the Angels, it has been working out well so far. In 51 games, he’s received 155 plate appearances. His 27.1% strikeout rate is on the high side, but he’s paired that with an excellent 13.5% walk rate. Among catchers with at least 150 trips to the plate, only Will Smith and Adley Rutschman have walked at a higher clip. Thaiss has just three home runs, but his .267/.374/.382 batting line amounts to a 116 wRC+. That places him in the top five in the league among backstops over that threshold of 150 plate appearances.
Of course, it’s not a total shock that he’s performing well at the plate, since that’s always been considered his best skill and he’s always hit on the farm. But he’s also holding his own defensively. By each of Statcast’s Blocks Above Average and their Caught Stealing Above Average metrics, Thaiss is graded with a zero or exactly league average. That’s not going to blow anyone’s socks off, but it’s a nice outcome for a guy who’s always been considered bat-first and wasn’t even catching as of a few years ago. Thaiss is still considered slightly below league average by Defensive Runs Saved and FanGraphs’ framing metric, but he’s not killing the club back there.
It’s also worth mentioning that veteran Chad Wallach is holding up his end of the deal as well. Those Statcast metrics consider him a bit below average, but he’s hit six home runs and is slashing .247/.304/.482 for a wRC+ of 114. For a guy who signed a minor league deal and was fourth on the depth chart coming into the year, that’s excellent production.
Turning back to Thaiss, he may not be a superstar but he’s inflated his own stock significantly in a few months. The roster squeeze won’t be coming back anytime soon, since O’Hoppe probably won’t be back until rosters expand in September — if he returns at all this season. Stassi’s timeline is completely unknown. He still has one guaranteed year left on his extension at $7MM, plus a $500K buyout on a 2025 club option, but after a dismal campaign in 2022 and this year potentially being entirely lost, he’s won’t be guaranteed any roster spots going forward.
Thaiss came into this year with one year and 38 days of service time, meaning he will finish this season at 2.038. That will leave him shy of Super Two status, allowing the Angels to potentially retain him cheaply for next year and three more arbitration campaigns beyond that. His defense still seems like a work in progress, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect continued improvements there given his relatively short amount of time getting reacquainted with the position.
The Angels have often had star power from Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani and others, but failed to succeed as a team due to injuries and a lack of depth. This year, they lost both of their primary catchers by the end of April, but it hasn’t been a disaster, with Thaiss and Wallach deserving credit for picking up the slack.