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Toolshed: Thaiss thriving in transition

Angels top pick, No. 1 prospect settling in at plate after move to first
August 12, 2016

A lot has changed for Matt Thaiss. It started with the Angels taking him 16th overall out of the University of Virginia in June's First-Year Player Draft. Then came the reported $2.15 million signing bonus. Then there was the first pro game, and the first promotion. But all this doesn't even cover the change that could dictate his baseball future -- the move from catcher to first base.

But through it all, one thing has stayed constant. The man can really hit a baseball. 

Thaiss notched his third straight multi-hit game for Class A Burlington on Thursday, extending his hitting streak with the Bees to seven games. Over his first 30 contests with the Bees, he's produced a .331/.397/.521 line with three homers, two triples, 10 doubles and 19 RBIs following a 15-game spell at Rookie-level Orem in which he hit .338/.394/.569 with 10 extra-base hits. 

None of that should be surprising from the Angels' top prospect, who starred at the plate in his three college seasons. The left-handed slugger batted .323 with 10 homers and a .925 OPS as a sophomore in 2015 as the Cavaliers captured their first national championship, and followed that with a .375/.473/.578 line, 10 homers and a remarkable 16/39 K/BB ratio in his junior campaign.

"It's definitely been a little different than college, but at the same time, there have been plenty of similarities," Thaiss said. "My time at UVA definitely helped me prepare for my time in the Angels organization because they preached and harped on a lot of the same things, which has helped a lot.... It's mostly the offensive approach. It's very simple, very details-oriented, very similar. They just want you to go out and play baseball. It's made for an easy transition."

Thaiss was primarily a catcher in college, but not many believed he had a future at the position. gave the 21-year-old below average 45 and 40 grades for his arm and fielding tools, respectively, on the 20-80 scale, and those defensive issues put him at No. 35 overall on its ranking of Draft prospects. The common belief was that any team considering Thaiss in the first round would strongly consider keeping him behind the plate because there would be good value in a player who could hit a ton and while being even an average defensive catcher. The Angels seemed thrilled to get Thaiss at No. 16 with scouting director Ric Wilson calling him "one of the top hitters in this year's Draft."

"Just the zone control he has, the ability to make contact to all fields, the easiness of the swing; his pitch recognition, his plate discipline, his ability to make good decisions at the plate," Wilson told "All these things lead us to believe he's going to be an above-average hitter or better."

But they didn't necessarily see him as a catcher. In his opening statements to the press, Wilson called Thaiss "a versatile guy" with first base or the corner outfield spots being where the former Cavalier might settle in. Two months later, it looks like we have our answer. All 39 of Thaiss' starts in the field for Orem and Burlington have come at first. The move didn't come as a surprise to the player, though.

"Around the process of the Draft, you might call it, teams started asking if I would consider adding a new position when I went pro, and I told them I was open to whatever," he said. "First base, outfield, whatever -- I wanted to be open-minded, if that could help my game. So far first base has been a little easier on the body."

With his advanced knowledge of the strike zone and ability to make consistent, hard contact from the left side, Thaiss' bat was considered ready for the pros before the debut, but it's possible that the move to first -- where he doesn't have to squat for nine innings and spend nearly as much time studying his pitchers' tendencies -- could provide a big boost to his offensive game as well. 

Thaiss agrees to a point but doesn't want anyone thinking the move has made life significantly easier, either.

"Maybe a little bit," he said. "I feel fresher at the end of every game, and it's a little easier on the body than catching normally is. But I'm still learning first base, too. I think a lot of people think it's an easy position to play, but that's not always the case. I'm still trying to get comfortable over there.

"There's a lot I've had to learn, like how to hold somebody on, what my positioning should be, how I work in a shift. It's a process to learn everything this position entails and what the Angels organization wants me to do at the position."

Minor League defensive stats aren't as advanced as their Major League counterparts, so it's difficult to point to hard data indicating how Thaiss' move to first has gone, other than to say it's still a work in progress with eight errors and a .978 fielding percentage in 39 starts.

But one thing's for sure. The story of Thaiss and the Angels isn't like that of Kyle Schwarber and the Cubs back in 2014 when the former Indiana catcher and No. 4 overall pick was adamant he could stick behind the plate, despite what reports said about his defensive abilities. (As we're all aware, most of Schwarber's starts in the Majors came in the outfield before a torn ACL knocked him out for the 2016 season.) That doesn't mean Thaiss won't look back longingly on his time behind the plate either, even as he looks forward to what he hopes will be a productive pro career.

"Absolutely, I always will," he said of missing catcher. "It's a lot of fun getting to be behind the plate, getting to be a leader back there. But there's a lot of work in both positions too, and like I said, I'm open for whatever the Angels need me to be."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.