One of the top N.J. natives in this year’s Major League Baseball Draft class is now on track to play with the best N.J. native playing the sport right now.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim selected University Virginia catcher Matt Thaiss – a graduate of Jackson Memorial High School – with the No. 16 overall pick in Thursday night’s MLB First-Year Player Draft.

“I was nervous all day,” Thaiss said. “I actually went golfing to keep my mind off of it. I had no idea it was coming until a couple of seconds before the pick was announced. (General manager Billy Eppler) called me and said, ‘Welcome to the Angels.’ Emotions are still running high. It’s surreal.”

Matt Thaiss starred for Jackson Memorial before moving on to Virginia. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle).

Thaiss arrived home from Virginia earlier this week to spend Draft Day with his family and friends, including high school coach Frank Malta and pitching coach J.M. Gold. Both coaches are still heading up the Jackson Memorial program and Gold himself was the No. 13 overall pick out of Toms River North in 1998.

“It was awesome to have them here,” Thaiss said. “Throughout my whole career, in high school and then when I went away to college, they have always kept in touch. They are always there when I needed them, and I love them for being here tonight to celebrate with me.”

Thaiss joins an organization that houses Millville native and perennial America League Most Valuable Player candidate Mike Trout, as well as St. Augustine Prep alum Joe Gatto in its farm system - both of whom were also picked in the first 60 picks. Scouts have been mixed on whether Thaiss will catch as a professional, but his offensive performance over the last two seasons made him a target of several teams in the middle and end of the first round.

According to Thaiss, the Angels told him they drafted him to catch and will have every opportunity to stick at the position.

“I know I can catch,” Thaiss said. “I made improvements from last year to this year in my catch-and-throw ability and my receiving skills. I’m looking forward to getting better and having a chance prove to a lot of people wrong who don’t think I can stick there.”

The Yankees and Mets were rumored to be interested in Thaiss at Nos. 18 and 19, respectively, but Thaiss’s stock continued to climb as the draft approached. He was linked to the St. Louis Cardinal at the end of the first round for much of the season and slowly climbed into the 21-to-26 range of mainstream mock drafts.

“To be totally honest, I didn’t look at any of that stuff,” Thaiss said “Throughout the season, I made it a focus of mine to give all of my focus to my team and making a postseason run with Virginia while at the same time keeping everything in my life away from the field. It helped a lot, not looking at it.

“Now, though, I’m definitely still taking it in. I can’t believe it. It’s awesome – being taken 16th by the Angels, such a great program. I owe so much, not only to the coaches and my teammates at Virginia, but also to the Jackson Memorial program.”

After earning spot duty at designated hitter and first base as a freshman, Thaiss won the starting catcher job for the Cavaliers as a sophomore and took off from there. He led Virginia in home runs and RBI both as a sophomore and a junior and was the No. 3 hitter and catcher on a College World Series championship team.

This past season, Thaiss hit 10 home runs for the second straight season to lead the Cavaliers and also led his team in batting average, RBI, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He also struck out only 16 times while drawing 39 walks. He started all 60 of Virginia’s games while primarily playing catcher.

As a four-year starter at Jackson Memorial, Thaiss hit .343 with 22 doubles, 17 home runs and 70 RBI in his four seasons with the Jaguars. As a senior, he hit .351 with four home runs and 11 doubles while posting a .531 on-base percentage and .689 slugging percentage. He also exhibited the same strike zone control that he would show at Virginia, drawing 29 walks while striking out just six times in his final high school season.

Thaiss was drafted in the 32nd round by the Boston Red Sox out of high school in 2013 and opted not to sign in order to honor his commitment to Virginia.

“I decided to put it off three-to-four years to grow as person and a player at Virginia,” Thaiss said. “I took that with me and every day on campus, I worked and worked on my game, my personal development, but I never really thought that something like this would turn out the way it did. I just wanted to have an opportunity to play at the next level however it came about, to be in this position, to get picked in the first round is not something I ever really expected.”


Update: Thaiss and the Angels came to terms on a $2.15 million signing bonus and Thaiss will begin his professional career with the Orem Owlz of the Pioneer League.