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August 15, 2012

Transaction Analysis

Mathis for Smart People? *UPDATED*

by Sam Miller and R.J. Anderson

IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

BOSTON RED SOX
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Acquired RHP Pedro Beato from the Mets for C-R Kelly Shoppach. [8/16]

So continues Beato’s atypical career path. The Orioles once selected Beato with the 32nd-overall pick in the draft. Beato landed with the Mets via the Rule 5 draft (and made 67 big-league appearances for them). Now Beato is traded to Boston as a player to be named later. Beato is a power arm starter kit. His fastball can get into the mid-90s and he complements the velocity with a cutter and a curveball. Home run and walk issues have plagued Beato, and his stuff rarely translates into good strikeout rates. Beato’s upside is probably in middle relief. Considering the opportunity cost involved, Beato is a suitable return. 

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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Agreed to an extension with C-R Jeff Mathis for two years, $3 million, with a club option for 2015. [8/14]

The thing about finding a unicorn is you wouldn’t even enjoy it until you believed in it, and it would take a long time before you believed in it. First you would think you had somehow gotten high, perhaps from a gas leak, or from the drugs that you regularly ingest. After a time, you would rule out temporary highness and conclude you had gone crazy. In time, you might come to accept your sanity, and even believe that maybe the unicorn was real, but you would always have some doubt. You would keep turning around, just to make sure it was still there and you could still see it. You wouldn’t expect it to be there. You might not even want it to be there.

Once a month or so, I look up Jeff Mathis’ catcher ERA. When Mike Scioscia started talking about Jeff Mathis’ low CERA, back in 2008, Mathis had been behind the plate for only 1,000 or so innings, and Scioscia’s claims were easily brushed aside. But it’s been four years since, and in four years of monthly check-ups, the doggone thing just keeps sitting there, staying real, or at least looking real. Crapping unicorn turds all over my living room. Real enough.

This year, with a new team, with a new pitching staff, he’s doing it again. Toronto pitchers have a 4.30 ERA with Mathis behind the plate, compared to 4.70 with J.P Arencibia. Can’t really blame it on the pitchers assigned to them; Mathis has had disproportionately few opportunities to catch Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero, who should be the two best starters on the staff. When paired with the Blue Jays’ five most frequent starters, Mathis’ CERA trumps Arencibia’s with four. Blue Jays pitchers have struck out more batters, walked fewer, and even benefited from a better BABIP when Mathis is catching. This is all a bunch of silliness, except that it’s the same thing that happened in 2009, 2010, and 2011. The strikeouts, the walks, the BABIPs, the individual pitcher ERAs, the staff ERAs.

I find this obnoxious.

***

One of the strangest parts of the Angels’ relationship with Mathis was that they didn’t just think Mathis was a superlative defender, despite some strong evidence to the contrary (which we will get to in a few paragraphs). They also always seemed convinced that Mathis was going to turn a corner as a hitter. No, Scioscia never argued that Mathis’ production—the worst in franchise history, by OPS+—was acceptable. But Mathis usually hit well in spring training, and he had that ridiculous week against the Yankees in the 2009 ALCS, and he started the 2010 season hot before injuring his wrist. Along the way, there was always optimism that Mathis might actually hit well. Like this quote:

"The biggest thing with young hitters is the look on their face," Hatcher said. "Jeff has a different look on his face this spring. You can see that confidence. It's fun to watch. I think this will be a year where he shows what he can do."

That was spring 2009. After that quote, Mathis would hit .193/.245/.282 as an Angel.

But you could still sort of understand. Mathis had been, at age 20 in the California League, a really good hitter. At age 21, too. After that, he never got better. (Using a simple minor league equivalency calculator, in fact, his major-league stats in his mid-20s and his minor league stats at 20 are almost identical.) But he was certainly young enough, and he certainly had some demonstrated talent, way back when. "I think it's going to click for him one of these years and he's going to take off from there. He could be an All-Star catcher,” Darren Oliver once said. There is, strangely, a very real desire among baseball people to see Jeff Mathis as a simmering offensive weapon. (He hit .174/.224/.259 as an Angel after Oliver said that.)

The Blue Jays traded for Mathis before this season. Gregg Zaun forecasted offensive greatness, and you might have picked up the impression that Mathis is having a decent year at the plate, with a .200 isolated power and such. Mathis made some mechanical adjustments, and a month into the season he starred in this article:

But when the backup catcher joined the Toronto Blue Jays this spring, they came up with the quaint notion that he could hit.

With a little help, that is. So throughout spring training, Mathis and hitting coach Dwayne Murphy fiddled with his stance and swing until they found a combination that felt right.

Last season with the Los Angeles Angels, Mathis hit three home runs. On Sunday, he hit his second as a Blue Jay. His batting average – small sample-size alert – is .313.

He switched from a closed to open stance and moved his hands forward.

“We were tinkering with some things,” he said. “This was the final tinker, I guess. It just kind of clicked.”

Since then, Mathis has hit .202/.232/.361. Since Arencibia got injured in July, he has played almost every day with a .167 OBP. I guess what I’m saying is, Jeff Mathis isn’t much of a hitter. This was probably too many words for that point.

***

The other strange thing is that Mathis’ defense, for which he is presumably employed, has never been measurably good. This year he has gunned down 39 percent of baserunners, tops in the American League, but it’s the first time in his career he’s been better than league average. He’s sturdy enough behind the plate, but he’ll also occasionally turn porous for an entire season, as in 2010, when his passed-ball and wild-pitch rates rose. Mike Fast’s metrics like him just fine for framing, but he’s well below elite, probably a little better than average.

So that leaves one of two explanations for this move. One is that two years and $3 million is an appropriate wage for a terrible, terrible backup. While it’s always hard to anticipate salary inflation, that explanation seems wrong. About two-thirds of big-league teams pay less than $500,000 for their backups by finding pre-arb players on their farms or the scrap heap. The few veterans backing up at catcher make $800,000 on the low end (Brian Schneider, Dioner Navarro) and $1.625 million on the high end (David Ross), with no other true back-up making more than Mathis’ $1.5 million. Matt Treanor makes $1 million, Gerald Laird makes $1 million, Kelly Shoppach makes $1.35 million. Jose Molina might be a good comparable, as another glove-first veteran who found an offensive spike in Rogers Centre, but his defensive value is, in contrast to Mathis’, documented and exceptional. He got $1.8 million from Tampa Bay, to start.

So if Mathis isn't better than he seems on the surface, the Blue Jays “overpaid,” or whatever you want to call it. Which leads us to the other possible explanation: the Blue Jays believe in the magic. They believe that Mathis is better than Treanor, better than Laird, better than Schneider, better perhaps than Molina. They believe that he is worth paying more than 28 or 29 other teams will pay their backup catchers, and that this is such a bargain that they want to lock it in for two years, with a team option for a third. The Blue Jays, a seemingly smart team that has little in common with the Tony Reagins-era Angels, has nevertheless made the same conclusion about Jeff Mathis. They believe that they know something we, out here at a distance, still haven’t discovered. The Blue Jays like Jeff Mathis, just like Mike Scioscia always liked Jeff Mathis, just like Jeff Mathis’ pitchers have always liked Jeff Mathis.

Don’t ignore this. This is data. This, in the absence of any data showing Jeff Mathis’ value, might actually be the most important data point of all. The unicorn might actually be real. —Sam Miller

NEW YORK METS
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Acquired C-R Kelly Shoppach from the Red Sox for a player to be named later. [8/14]

Typically, the contending team is the one acquiring the veteran player at this time of the year, but not with this trade. Nevertheless, this is not a complicated swap to understand. The Red Sox wanted to free up playing time for Ryan Lavarnway. They decided that trading Shoppach (who happens to be on an expiring deal) made more sense than carrying three catchers or trading Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Fair enough, as long as they don’t anticipate a significant return.

The Mets were supposedly interested in a few veteran catchers throughout the trade season, including Ramon Hernandez and Kurt Suzuki. Ostensibly, the plan is (and was) to platoon Josh Thole with the new veteran. Shoppach is familiar with the role, as he took part in a timeshares with John Jaso in Tampa Bay and then with Saltalamacchia in Boston. His best offensive skill is his ability to hit a ball a long way; his worst is making contact to begin with. Shoppach isn’t the best defender around, but the overall package makes him a clear upgrade over the Mets' alternatives, like Rob Johnson and Mike Nickeas (although those players are less likely than Shoppach to throw their bats into the stands on a swing).

Consider this some advance scouting on the part of the Mets. Shoppach will become a free agent at season’s end, and now the Mets have about two months to evaluate how he goes about his business. It would not be surprising to see the two sides hammer out an agreement on a 2013 contract if the Mets like what they see. —R.J. Anderson

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here
R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

Related Content:  Jeff Mathis,  Kelly Shoppach

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