ANAHEIM — It has been a seven-year journey for Matt Thaiss to find himself where, perhaps, he always should have been.
The Angels took the catcher’s gear from Thaiss immediately after selecting him with the 16th overall pick in the 2016 draft.
After spending a few years trying other positions and mostly failing to hit up to expectations, Thaiss is now succeeding in the majors, at the plate and behind it.
“I feel really comfortable behind the dish,” Thaiss said. “And I think that helps with being at the plate too. Obviously, I’m still working real hard behind the plate, just to fine-tune things every day. But to be comfortable in a position where I’m not stressed about being in the field is nice.”
Thaiss, 28, is hitting .269 with a .761 OPS, which is well above the major league average of .688 for a catcher. Defensively, he rates as above average in framing pitches and throwing and he’s average at blocking, according to StatCast.
“He’s put himself in a really good position to receive and frame balls,” Angels catching coach Drew Butera said. “I think his throwing has improved tremendously. And I think it kind of goes with every catcher, but his game calling, the more you do it, the better you get at it.”
Manager Phil Nevin said Thaiss has persevered through a lack of opportunity to make himself a quality hitter.
“The time he put in the cage, in batting practice sessions, you can see the focus and intensity,” Nevin said. “It just makes him better and better each chance he gets out there.”
Nevin was also a first-round pick – No. 1 overall, in fact – who took a few years to find his footing in the big leagues, so he can identify with the path that Thaiss took.
“It’s fun to see that growth at this level, when somebody finally gets those opportunities,” Nevin said. “They’re hard to come by when you first come up in the big leagues. Not everybody just gets handed a position. He certainly had to work through it.”
The work looked like it might be heading to a dead end as recently as two months ago.
Thaiss began the season by going hitless in his first 12 at-bats, which followed an 0-for-22 skid at the end of spring training. All told, Thaiss went more than a month between hits.
Amid all of that, he endured a nightmare sequence on April 15 in Boston. Thaiss allowed his glove to be in the path of two Red Sox swings, resulting in catcher’s interference calls that led to an Angels loss.
After that game, Thaiss sat quietly at his locker for at least 20 minutes, still in full uniform, staring at the ground. Once he stood to talk to reporters, he said he was “sick to my stomach” for costing the Angels a game.
Since hitting that bottom, though, Thaiss has rebounded.
“Obviously, it was tough,” Thaiss said two months after that crushing start to his season, “but nothing throughout my big-league career has been too easy to start. I’ve had not the best times at the plate. Defensively struggled at different positions. I’m lucky to have all those failures in the past so that it didn’t linger when it started this year. And I was able to turn the page real quick.”
The difficulty started for Thaiss before he even played his first game, when the Angels let him know of their plans to move him from the position he had played at the University of Virginia.
The thinking at the time was that Thaiss did not have a strong enough arm to be a major league catcher. Also, the Angels liked his bat so much that they figured he could reach the majors more quickly without worrying about the demands of catching.
“When it first happened, I wasn’t happy,” Thaiss said. “But I got used to it.”
Mostly playing first base, Thaiss advanced quickly, reaching Double-A in his first full season, in 2017, and getting to the big leagues in 2019. He bounced between the majors and Triple-A for a few years, never really hitting his stride at the plate. He hit .202 in 2019-20, and the Angels began to experiment with him at second base, third base and even the outfield. None of it went well.
By 2021, the Angels had signed Anthony Rendon to a seven-year deal to play third and Jared Walsh earned an All-Star selection as a first baseman. The Angels had plenty of outfielders. With those spots all filled, the Angels pushed Thaiss back where he began.
The transition back to catcher wasn’t easy, though.
In the five years when Thaiss was out from behind the plate, the position changed. Back in 2016, catchers rarely caught with one knee on the ground, and certainly not with runners on base. Now, it’s standard for most catchers to catch that way almost all of the time because they can frame better without any significant sacrifices in blocking or throwing.
“It’s hard to spend your life doing something and then retrain your mind and your body to do something differently,” Butera said.
Thaiss spent almost all of 2021 and 2022 in the minors re-learning how to be a catcher. During that time, he used up his minor league options, so 2023 was a key season for Thaiss to show what he could do in the big leagues, defensively and offensively.
Thaiss earned a spot on the Opening Day roster because Max Stassi began the season with a hip injury. He then got even more playing time when Logan O’Hoppe underwent shoulder surgery in mid-April.
Since Thaiss and Chad Wallach have been splitting the catching duties, they have provided surprising production. The Angels rank third in the majors with a .786 OPS from their catchers.
Thaiss is especially adept at working counts and getting on base. He is in the 93rd percentile in chase rate and the 91st percentile with a walk rate of 13.6%. He has seen 4.18 pitches per plate appearance, which is second on the Angels to Mike Trout among players with at least 100 plate appearances.
“I feel like even the at-bats that don’t go my way, I’m seeing a lot of pitches, which is something that I like to do, so I’d like to keep that rolling,” Thaiss said.
Since he finally picked up his first hit of the season on April 22, Thaiss had hit .297 with an .815 OPS over 44 games. Nevin has put him as high as the No. 5 spot in the lineup.
Thaiss has also put to rest questions about whether he could handle the position defensively.
“I feel good back there,” Thaiss said. “I know obviously there’s still room to grow. Everyone will tell you that. No one is ever happy with where they’re at, but from just playing other positions to where I am now, this is the most comfortable I’ve been.”
Dodgers (LHP Clayton Kershaw, 8-4, 2.95) at Angels (LHP Reid Detmers, 1-5, 4.48), Tuesday, 7:07 p.m., Bally Sports West, TBS, 830 AM