By Wayne Witkowski
It’s been a whirlwind experience for Jackson Township baseball star Matt Thaiss, who has been spending time this month in five different states — three out West — as a first-round draft pick (16th overall) by the Los Angeles Angels.
Just four days after his University of Virginia baseball team was dethroned as defending NCAA World Series champions in a stunning 5-4 elimination loss to the College of William & Mary at the NCAA regionals at home in Charlottesville June 5, Thaiss was informed that he was the 16th overall pick in the Major League Baseball (MLB) First-Year Player Draft. He was with his family, Jackson Memorial High School head baseball coach Frank Malta and longtime assistant J.M. Gold at the Thaiss home in Jackson when he learned the news.
By early last week, the 21-year-old was on a flight to Los Angeles.
He confirmed a report by SB Nation’s Halos Heaven that he signed a $2.15 million contract, plus bonus incentives, with the Angels. He had carried a recommended price tag of $2,660,800, the website reports. Thaiss said the contract talks went smooth.
From there, Thaiss reported to the Angels’ spring training camp in Tempe, Arizona, June 16 to prepare for assignment around the end of this week to the Angels’ Pioneer League team for rookies in Orem, Utah. That team has just started its short season, and Thaiss said he was given no indication by the Angels how long he will play for Orem, as he is expected to move up the levels this summer toward the major league team as quickly as his productivity allows.
“It’s hot out here, about 113 to 120 degrees,” Thaiss said from Tempe June 18. “It’s a beautiful complex here, everything you need.”
Thaiss is only the second player from the Shore Conference to be selected in the first round. Barnegat High School senior left-handed pitcher Jason Groome went four picks earlier June 5 at No. 12 overall to the Boston Red Sox.
Thaiss, who recently was named to Baseball America’s second team All-America as a catcher (the position he has played the past two seasons), is being prepared to play first base, where he played five games at Virginia this season and 15 last season. The lefty-hitting Thaiss led Virginia with a .375 batting average, 59 RBIs, 10 home runs, a .575 slugging percentage and a .473 on-base percentage. He struck out just 16 times in 232 official at-bats and walked 38 times.
Defensively, Thaiss threw out nine of 18 base-stealers from behind the plate and committed six errors for a .985 fielding percentage at Virginia. Thaiss started all 60 games, as the Cavaliers finished 38-22.
“I’m a team guy. I’m willing to do whatever it takes, wherever I’m placed,” Thaiss told The Orange County Register.
There also has been speculation on MLB websites that Thaiss may wind up in left field. Mike Trout, the only other first-round draft pick by the Angels out of New Jersey, has starred in the outfield for the Angels in an all-star career and earns $15.2 million this season.
“It might be; who knows,” Thaiss said of that outfield option. “I’m flexible. Whatever is good for the club.”
The last time Thaiss played in the outfield was as a backup his sophomore year in 2011 on Jackson Memorial’s varsity team. He played on the Jaguars’ NJSIAA Group IV finalist team that lost to Randolph High School. He was moved to catcher for his junior season and started there in his final two seasons in high school.
Thaiss previously was picked in the 32nd round of the 2013 draft (953rd overall) by the Red Sox.
Hitting is what’s earned Thaiss the current draft selection, and reports show his slightly unorthodox swing can easily be tweaked, including during his time in Tempe.
The MLB’s website reported longtime Angels scouting director Ric Wilson calling Thaiss one of the top hitters in this year’s draft.
This marks the third straight year that the University of Virginia has produced a first-round draft pick. Thaiss became the fifth Cavalier in that span to be taken in the first round. He is Virginia’s 10th first-round draft pick in program history and Virginia’s highest draft pick at catcher.
Just the fourth two-time All-American in program history, Thaiss was a semifinalist this spring at Virginia for the Dick Howser Trophy as the nation’s top NCAA Division I player and Johnny Bench Award as the top NCAA Division I catcher. He also earned second team All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors.
There was some skepticism entering Virginia’s season that Thaiss had to overcome after he batted .149 in the Cape Cod League last summer for the Harwich, Massachusetts, Mariners coming off the College World Series championship run. Scouts reported Thaiss showed uncharacteristically poor strike zone judgement with just two walks, 18 strikeouts, a .197 slugging percentage and .254 on-base percentage at Harwich. But that was turned around and dismissed at the outset when Thaiss got off to a fast start at the plate this spring for Virginia.
According to one scouting report from Halo Heaven, “Thaiss has an exceptionally good feel for the strike zone and a clean line drive swing. Although lacking big raw power, he has enough bat speed to get the ball over the fences, especially given his ability to recognize hittable offerings and lay off pitches he can’t drive. He should hit for solid batting averages and high [on-base percentages] with moderate power.”
“Thaiss has above-average bat speed, good hand-eye [coordination] and good enough timing to make a slightly unorthodox swing come together,” according to an ESPN.com report.
Thaiss said he is ready for the challenges of a professional sports lifestyle from being on the road this month and during his college career.
“There are a lot of different things — different drills and the time to cool down after a game,” Thaiss said.
He said the feedback he has been getting from people around Jackson has been reassuring.
“Everyone is really proud and excited,” he said. “This [experience] is something that goes back to college, high school and Little League (where Thaiss played on a state championship team). Nobody knew everything would come together like this.”
Thaiss threw out the first pitch for the Jackson Little League season last year and signed autographs for youngsters as coaches and administrators said players have been reminded these days about the recent exciting news and have gotten text updates from the township league.
“I know his father, Kevin, very well and coached his two brothers. He was special from when he was an 8-year-old. We knew he had something as one of the elite players,” said Jeff Goeke, the manager of this year’s Jackson Little League 12-year-old All-Stars, which was a victory away from reaching the Little League World Series last summer. “Every player on my team knows who he is.”
But Thaiss said he would be quick to remind them the road taken to a professional baseball career is really tough.
“There have been guys I’ve played with who are more athletic than me, but it’s not about talent but how much work you’re willing to do and the time you put in,” he said.
For Thaiss, it has been time well spent and well invested.