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August 2, 2012

BP Unfiltered

Can Gregg Zaun See the Future of Bad Backup Catchers?

by Ben Lindbergh

Former Practically Perfect Backup Catcher and current Rogers Sportsnet analyst/plus-plus website proprietor Gregg Zaun tweeted something last December that seemed very silly. So silly, in fact, that I remembered it roughly eight months longer than I remember most tweets. But now that we're two-thirds of the way through the season, what Zaun said is starting to sound slightly more persuasive.

Just over a month after joining the Angels, Jerry Dipoto traded Mathis to the Blue Jays for Brad Mills. By that time, Mathis had been one of the worst hitters in baseball for the better part of a decade: from 2005 to 2011, only one player (Humberto Quintero) amassed at least 1,000 plate appearances with a TAv worse than Mathis’ .207. He was entering his age-29 season, and no one expected him to make any offensive improvement. No one, that is, except Gregg Zaun.

Zaun knows more about catching than every Mathis-mocking blogger combined. Still, his theory seemed far-fetched. Catchers age early, and we'd seen so much evidence of Mathis being a bad hitter that it was impossible to imagine him being anything but.

Then came this season. It's August, and Jeff Mathis is hitting .243/.282/.466. The .243 and .282 sound a little like Mathis (though both would be either career bests or close to it), but the .466 decidedly doesn't. Some of that is Mathis moving from Angel Stadium, where it's hard to hit homers from the right side, to Rogers Centre, where it's much easier. If you want to get park-adjusted about it, that slash line translates to a .256 TAv. That's essentially league average at catcher in a good offensive year for catchers (or at least for Carlos Ruiz). Jeff Mathis being league average is big news.

Maybe Zaun was right. Maybe, freed from Mike Scioscia's single-minded pursuit of defense above all else, Mathis decided that hitting something other than singles might be a good idea after all. Maybe that road to Damascus moment when the power of Mathis became clear to Zaun was real.

Or maybe Mathis is mostly the same. His plate discipline stats and walk, strikeout, and batted-ball rates aren't far off from where they were last season. The differences are that only 48 percent of his hits this season have been singles, compared to 68 percent over the past seven seasons, and that his fly balls have left the park about four times more often than they did last year. Over 113 plate appearances, that probably doesn't mean much. Between now and the end of September, Mathis might not have another extra-base hit.

Did Zaun see something we didn't? I don't know. But it seems at least a little more likely than it did in December, doesn't it?

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Jeff Mathis,  Catchers,  Gregg Zaun

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