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December 16, 2011

Baseball ProGUESTus

The Men Behind the Men Behind the Plate

by Jonathan Bernhardt

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Jonathan Bernhardt is a freelance writer born in Baltimore who lives and works in New York City. He is an occasional contributor to the Et tu, Mr. Destructo? blog.

 

Spring Training, 2010. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have reconvened in Arizona to prepare for the upcoming season following their loss to the New York Yankees in the ALCS the previous fall, and catcher Jeff Mathis is fielding all the usual questions. On March 3rd he goes on Angels’ radio affiliate AM 830 to talk with Jeff Biggs. Biggs doesn’t waste any time.

“Hey Jeff,” he says after some small talk about Ervin Santana, “as you know, this spring some of your teammates are gone, some new faces have come in, there’s some question marks—who’s going to bat leadoff, who’s going to be the ace, what about Brandon Wood, but one thing we can count on, Jeff, is the Mathis-Napoli columns.”

Biggs nervously laughs into the dead space that follows, unaware as we are that shortstop Erick Aybar will leadoff, righty Jered Weaver will be the ace, and Brandon Wood’s future holds only disappointment and Pittsburgh. The Angels will not have the year they hope; they will finish 82-80, third in the division behind the Texas Rangers and the Oakland Athletics. But neither Biggs nor Mathis, nor anyone for that matter, knows this on March 3rd, 2010, so their conversation focuses on the biggest camp storyline both this and last season: Who will be the Angels’ starting catcher?

“It’s something we’ve dealt with for a long time now,” Mathis says, “and it’s something we give the same answer to every time it’s asked. We’re friends, and we both have to compete, and we come into the clubhouse every day hoping to be in the lineup and if we’re not we’re supporting the other guy, and that’s how it’s been for awhile and that’s how it will continue to be this year.”

The answer is boilerplate but understandable and entirely fair. It isn’t the first time Mathis has talked about how good his relationship with Napoli is, and it’s certainly not the first time he’s told reporters that the situation is out of his hands. Mathis is right; he’s not the guy who gives out playing time in Anaheim. That’s manager Mike Scioscia’s job.

But Biggs isn’t satisfied. “I hear you,” he says, voice hitching, trying to phrase the next bit properly. “I’ve heard your quotes, and I know Mike Napoli himself had made the comment that, ‘Yeah, we’re still good’”—more nervous laughter—“but he kind of joked that, ‘we kind of need to get away from each other at this point,’ because, uh,” and now Biggs reaches for a nice way to frame the battle Mathis is losing; after a fumbling second, he finds: “Every year you guys both keep getting better.”

There’s a pause, not overly long, and then Mathis says, “Yeah.”

Mathis is well aware of the differences between himself and the other catcher on the Angels’ roster. He probably knows the numbers: in 2009, Mike Napoli hit .272/.350/.492 (.842) in 432 PA, splitting his time between catcher and occasionally designated hitter. Mathis, on the other hand, hit .211/.288/.308 (.596) in 272 PA. He also probably knows that with both himself and Napoli approaching arbitration and therefore becoming much more expensive, the club is going to have to make a choice sooner rather than later.

“It’s just—I mean, we know there’s going to be a point where we’re definitely going to have to split up and go our separate ways, and that’s part of it,” Mathis tells Biggs. “And like you said, we both feel like we’re ready to play every day and you know, right now we’re not at that point in our careers. But you picture that's what it's going to come to, and you know, that's just part of the game.”

But neither he nor Napoli could have predicted that the Angels would prepare for spring training in 2012 without either of them on the roster, and that’s just part of the game as well.

---

The Angels will go to camp next spring with former Colorado Rockies backstop Chris Iannetta as their starting catcher. Jeff Mathis and Mike Napoli both remain backups elsewhere in the league, albeit different players in every other way possible.

Napoli spent most of 2010 bounced between catcher and first base after the Angels lost Kendrys Morales to injury, with some time spent at DH as well. That offseason, however, then-General Manager Tony Reagins decided that Napoli wasn’t someone who had a place on the Angels moving forward; he included him as a throw-in piece in the Vernon Wells trade with the Toronto Blue Jays. Reagins was perhaps not in his right mind—after all, he had just voluntarily traded for one of the most crippling contracts in baseball—but Toronto General Manager Alex Anthopoulos apparently agreed with his assessment of Napoli, because he sent him to the Texas Rangers in return for closer Frank Francisco.

Napoli and Rangers starting catcher Yorvit Torrealba both appeared in 113 games for the Rangers this season, but while Torrealba spent all but 15 of his behind the plate (he was occasionally the designated hitter or a pinch hitter on his rest days), Napoli spent 61 behind the plate, 35 at first base, and 17 at designated hitter. No manager in his right mind plays his backup catcher at first base for 35 games, or at designated hitter at all, unless it's an emergency or he has a good reason.

Texas manager Ron Washington had a very good reason: Mike Napoli was the most valuable Ranger in 2011. He led the team's starters in True Average at .374 (followed by Adrian Beltre at .323 and Josh Hamilton at .316) while spending the majority of his playing time at a position of premium defensive value—506.1 innings played behind the plate against 246.1 at first base. Considering how bad Mitch Moreland was at first, Napoli would likely have gotten more playing time there if not for injuries.

Napoli will continue as the backup catcher for the Rangers in 2012, among his other duties. He will also continue to see significant playing time elsewhere in the lineup and on the field when not behind the plate, either at first or as designated hitter. His bat is simply too valuable to leave on the bench. He may not be a fantastic defensive catcher—he may not even be an above-average defensive catcher—but for Napoli, catching is just one aspect of a far more robust game.

Meanwhile, Jeff Mathis abides. Mathis’s 2010 at the plate was a disaster even by his meager standards: .195/.219/.278 (.497) in 218 PA. He lost time not only to Napoli but to 27-year-old Bobby Wilson, who hit .229/.288/.417 (.705) in 106 PA. After Napoli left in the offseason, Mathis was primed to take over as everyday catcher for the Angels but again managed fewer than 300 PA; he hit .174/.225/.259 (.484) in only 281. He lost playing time to Wilson again and to Hank Conger, another catcher from the Angels’ system quickly developing into a poor man’s Napoli.

How did Mathis continue to get playing time with a bat that horrid? As always when it comes to playing time, the answer lies with manager Mike Scioscia. Six months ago in this very space Sam Miller explained how Scioscia, a former MLB catcher himself, judged his backstops:

“Let me put it to you this way,” [Scioscia] once said. “If you string out 162 games and you have one catcher who is giving up one run a game less when he catches, on the net runs end of it, he’s 162 runs ahead, right? So the other catcher has to produce 162 runs more than the other guy just to break even. I think a catcher is going to influence a game and a season behind the plate more than he is with his four at-bats a night.”

Scioscia is, in his own inimitably insane way, trying to make a case for Catcher ERA, which was largely debunked a decade ago. It’s a stat that doesn’t even make sense intuitively: if a plate appearance is a series of transactions between two individuals—a pitcher and a hitter—then a catcher's influence on the outcome can be only mild at best. This is not to say a catcher's abilities don't affect the outcome at all; as Mike Fast showed, a catcher can significantly contribute by framing pitches. However, the impact of these findings doesn't amount to one run saved per game by even the best framing catcher, as Scioscia suggests; Jose Molina and Russell Martin, by far the best framers in baseball over the last few years by total runs saved, were able to save “only” 73 and 71 runs respectively from 2007 to 2011. From 2007 to 2010, the time period during which both men were Angels (and for which we have framing data), Mathis saved 14 runs with his framing and Napoli gave up 18—a significant difference, but not enough to outweigh the horror show that Mathis's bat represented. Over those same years, Mathis subtracted 50.7 runs at the plate (BRAA), while Napoli created 59.8.

Instead, Jeff Mathis spent a significant part of the last two seasons behind the plate for Anaheim. All things good and otherwise must someday end, however, and following the 2011 season Tony Reagins found himself no longer employed by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. One of new general manager Jerry Dipoto’s first moves was to acquire Iannetta from the Rockies for pitcher Tyler Chatwood. In Iannetta, the Angels had a starting catcher with good defensive fundamentals who could also hit the ball—and that meant they had no more use for Jeff Mathis.

So Dipoto traded him to the Blue Jays, of all teams—the same organization that had acquired and then dealt Mike Napoli a year prior. Toronto is not a stopover this time; Mathis will earn $1.5 million next year as their backup catcher. He is at most the third-best catcher in their organization behind starter J.P. Arencibia and prospect Travis D’Arnaud.

If Napoli, one of the most valuable hitters in the American League last year, and Mathis, one of the least valuable, can both thrive as backup catchers, what does that say about the position?

It says that the position really isn’t that important at all.

---

The backup catcher for any Major League franchise with an established starter has two essential responsibilities:

  1. Spelling said starter in the second game of doubleheaders, on day games after night games, and on maintenance games throughout the year, and
     
  2. Not actively hurting the team while doing so.

That’s it. If the man is great at handling pitchers, fine. Hire him as the bullpen catcher or the pitching coach. If the man is a great locker room leader, that’s nice, but perhaps the team’s starting catcher should start doing that. After all, he can speak to the rest of the team as an equal. He’s the guy the team is going to lock down long-term; he’s the guy for which the team is going to hold bobblehead nights. The backup catcher is just a journeyman on a one-year bid. Leadership should be long-term.

But that’s getting away from the central point: in roster construction, intangibles and player coaching are bonuses. They’re the cherry on top of a good signing, and teams figure out when a guy is able to provide that kind of a boost only once he’s in the clubhouse, because they’re all different—and like the Bronx Zoo showed, you don’t need good clubhouse guys to win. Players who take up roster space should be able to play.

The backup catcher is one of the least important positions on an MLB roster; he exists only to give a better player the opportunity to rest so that he does not destroy his body. That puts his roster spot’s value somewhere between the fourth outfielder and the guy in the bullpen who comes in only when the team is down by eight.

This is why Mike Napoli is by far the best backup catcher in baseball: because while it’s a sizeable responsibility, it isn’t his full and only vocation. Over the last two years Napoli has spent only about half his time catching—the rest was spent spelling the first baseman or being his team’s designated hitter. He provides immense value in this role, and while other teams can’t expect a hitter of his caliber to just fall into their laps like he did in Texas, he certainly provides a model to work from.

For example, the Baltimore Orioles went into camp in 2011 with three real candidates for the backup catcher position: Craig Tatum, Jake Fox, and Brandon Snyder. Tatum was a career backup who’d come to Baltimore from the Reds organization a couple years earlier; Fox was an ex-Cub and Athletic who also played first base; Snyder started out as a catcher, moved to first base, and the Orioles put him back behind the plate to see what he could do there. Out of all of them, Fox hit the best in Spring Training; he mashed, in fact, but both he and Tatum broke camp with the team. By the end of April, Baltimore manager Buck Showalter decided he wanted Tatum's catcherly intangibles on the roster more than Fox's bat. Fox's line in admittedly limited action (67 PAs) was .246/.313/.443 (.756); Tatum's was .195/.245/.230 (.475) in 96 PAs.

The best that can be said of the decision is that while Showalter went with a guy who gave him vastly less offensive production, he at least limited the man's ability to do damage to the Orioles at the plate. If he had similarly limited Jake Fox's exposure at the catcher position instead—Tatum played 239.2 innings there compared to Matt Wieters's 1061.1— he would have minimized whatever ills Fox could have committed with his defense while still giving the franchise player acceptable rest, and in exchange would have had someone with a career 87 OPS+ to use when a body was needed in left field or at first base instead of Felix Pie (78 OPS+ career, 51 OPS+ last season) or any of the various Triple-A bench bats brought up for a look later in the season.

It wouldn't have made the Orioles a contender, but if the Orioles had been a contender, it would have been a bit of an edge—and if there's one thing contenders in the American League outside of New York and Boston can use, it's an edge, especially with the new draft and international free agency rules.

Perhaps that's the most telling indicator of how irrelevant the backup catcher really is: it would help if teams valued them more appropriately, but it wouldn't help that much. Craig Tatum was cut by the Orioles following the 2011 season and claimed by the Houston Astros; Jake Fox was signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He will once again compete for a roster spot with a non-contending team; good luck to him. The Pirates’ starter will be Rod Barajas on a one-year deal, with Mike McKenry and Eric Fryer giving Fox competition. Fox will likely start the year in Triple-A. Despite his bat, he may never see consistent playing time again in the major leagues.

Meanwhile, next year Jeff Mathis will make $1.5 million.

---

Before Jeff Biggs starts in on the Napoli/Mathis debate in that 2010 Spring Training interview, he chatters at Mathis about an intrasquad game the Angels had played earlier that afternoon. Biggs asks how Ervin Santana pitched in his one inning of work; Mathis says that Santana looked good, hit his spots, and that he’s excited to get this thing going for the next six months.

Then Biggs continues: “With the Cactus League opener coming up tomorrow I know we as fans, we get pumped up, we can’t wait for the games to start even though they’re spring training games—we just get excited for that to start—do you get the same way too?”

One might think Jeff Mathis would laugh and say no to this in his heart of hearts. After all, even his manager dances around the subject of his bat, playing down his contributions on the diamond and referring to him more as a coach than a player.

Instead Mathis says, “Well, yeah, I mean, it’s a game,” in the tone of voice one uses to explain that the Earth is round.

Mathis gets it. Gravity exists, the sun also rises, and baseball players love to play baseball. The field is where the focus should be—even for backup catchers.

5 comments have been left for this article.

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