SAN BERNARDINO, Calif.—The first full season of pro ball has been one of adjustments for Matt Thaiss.
The Angels’ 2016 first-rounder is not only dealing with the inherent challenges of transitioning to the professional game as a hitter, but is doing so while also learning a new position.
In that context, Thaiss’ first-half performance with high Class A Inland Empire is drawing positive reviews despite uninspiring numbers on the surface, namely a .258 batting average entering Friday.
“He’s done a nice job,” Inland Empire manager Chad Tracy said. “It’s easy to look at a batting average and say ‘Oh it’s not good,’ but he’s controlling the strike zone well, his walks are close to the number of strikeouts, he knows how to battle and spoil pitches. A lot of the things you look for in a hitter approach-wise, you project it out, it’s all there.”
The Angels drafted Thaiss 16th overall from Virginia last June. A catcher his entire career with the Cavaliers, the Angels immediately moved him to first base in order to let him focus on hitting, his greatest strength.
Thaiss, 22, hasn’t posted the prolific offensive numbers the Angels hoped for. That said, he is still getting on base at a .347 clip and is on pace for 20-plus doubles and double-digit home runs playing his home games in one of the minors’ most pitcher-friendly ballparks.
“Everyone wants to hit .300, .330, .350,” Thaiss said. “But for me, for my progress, my stats matter a little bit but for the most part I’m going up there trying to have four or five quality at-bats a game. Whether I line out to second or draw a walk, that’s my goal. If I can go day in and day out with four or five quality at-bats a day the numbers will speak for themselves at the end of the year, and we still have a whole half the year left.”
The makings of those improved results are starting to transpire. Thaiss entered Friday hitting .324/.351/.471 in his previous eight games.
“With him it’s just basically been about being ready on time,” Tracy said. “That’s paramount with a lot of college hitters that come out. You get the wood bat in your hands and a lot of guys don’t really have a good concept of what truly being on time is. He does, but he needs reminders at times. When he fights to get started early enough and gets backloaded into a hitting position early enough, he gets it pretty good.”
While Thaiss’ offensive adjustments are coming along slowly, his defensive improvement has been rapid. After a round of instructs, spring training and 130 professional games, first base is starting to feel like home.
“I’ve learned everything in and out at first base to try to become the best defender I can be,” Thaiss said. “I think I’ve come a long way from just a year ago where I was thrown over there and just started playing first base. I know now where I need to be and I know my reads, things like that. It’s just a big comfort thing that’s made me better over there.”
The increased comfort level and performance has been eye-opening for Tracy.
“He’s done a terrific job at first base,” Tracy said. “His range has improved, his hands have improved, picking the ball he has been fantastic. When I first laid eyes on him in instructional league it was rigid and rough around the edges, he was still learning, but he’s taken to it and looks completely comfortable out there now.”
There are still many steps to go for Thaiss as he ascends the minor league ladder. Slowly but surely, he is making the adjustments needed to deliver the production expected of a first-round pick.
“It’s been a great experience getting out here for your first full year. It’s a lot different than anything else I’ve ever done,” Thaiss said. “It’s tough and it’s a hard job but what else would you want to do? You ask yourself at 10 years old what you want to be and it’s playing baseball, and I’m lucky enough to be able to do it.”