Thole is working hard on his defense

Mets catcher Josh Thole participates in fielding drills

Mets catcher Josh Thole participates in fielding drills during spring training. (Feb. 24, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

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The Mets, handcuffed by a limited budget, chose to pass on potential catching upgrades this winter, despite a rough season from Josh Thole last year.

But Thole knows that won't always be the case, and he's already been doing whatever he can to prevent a recurrence of the defensive issues that plagued him in 2011. Fresh off two trips to Dallas, where he worked intensively with Mets catching coordinator Bob Natal, Thole is now in Port St. Lucie, Fla., two weeks early, more confident than ever about his ability behind the plate.

"I'm getting to a point where we're not in a trial-and-error period anymore," Thole said during a telephone interview this week. "It is what it is. If I don't catch well over the course of this year, it will be a matter of who's next, they'll keep the line moving, and I can't have that.

"If things aren't going well, they're not just going to keep waiting on you. You have to take the bull by the horns and do it yourself. There's going to be no 'he's young -- give him time.' Those days are over. It's time to get it done now. I've got to keep going forward."

A big part of that process were those January tutorials with Natal, who watched countless hours of video with Thole during his first trip to Dallas. It was not exactly a highlight reel. Those digital loops contained each of Thole's 16 passed balls -- the most in the National League and second only to Boston's Jarrod Saltalamacchia's 26 -- and every other miscue from last season that may not have appeared in the boxscores. Eleven of his passed balls occurred in games started by knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.

The video sessions went as late as midnight, and after such close examination, the reason for Thole's struggles soon became obvious. Just as a pitcher's delivery can get out of whack if the same mechanics are not repeated each time, Thole's stance behind the plate frequently varied. In turn, that often left him off-balance or unprepared to successfully receive or block balls, a fatal flaw at that position.

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Thole, 25, remains unsure exactly why it happened, and says he was unable to pinpoint the problem during his own video investigation last season, or with the help of departed bullpen/catching coach Jon Debus. So this time, in addition to watching himself, Thole also studied video of the game's top defensive catchers, including the gold standard among backstops, the Cardinals' Yadier Molina.

"Call it comparing apples and oranges if you want," Thole said, "but if you get yourself in a comfortable spot to catch the ball, you're going to do well. Every time [Molina] gets into the same stance. He catches the ball the same way virtually every time. When I identified that I had five different stances in the middle of a game, it was like, no wonder I was having problems."

After helping Thole find his own stance, Natal worked with him on the virtual machine, which has a video simulation of a pitcher's delivery before firing the ball at a chosen spot, such as in the dirt. The best indication of Thole's progress, Natal said, was the fact that he could duplicate the stance when he returned to Dallas two weeks later, showing that it had become second nature for him.

"It's given him more confidence," Natal said. "And if you're confident, you can do a lot of good things."

Thole believes that new bench coach Bob Geren, a former major-league catcher, will be an asset for him as well. The two have talked a number of times this offseason, and Geren will also be in Port St. Lucie early.

"I thought I was really prepared last year coming into spring training, and compared to the way I feel right now, it's almost like I wasn't even close," Thole said. "It's a complete 180."

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