One of the trendy names floating around right now in free agent discussions is that of Gary Matthews Jr. Of course, such talk reflects an extremely weak free agent class, coupled with Matthews’ impressive-looking 2006 season. Matthews’s name ceratainly wasn’t on anyone’s big-ticket radar prior to this year. The main question we should be asking is whether or not the production level is for real and able to be reproduced in the future, or if it was just a matter of chance and luck.

The son of former major leaguer Gary Matthews, “Little Sarge” was drafted by San Diego in the thirteenth round of the 1993 amateur draft after earning All-Conference honors during both of his years of college ball for Mission College. (The Twins drafted him in 1992, but he didn’t sign.) His professional debut came with Spokane at the short-season A-ball level, where he hit a poor .209/.281/.251, striking out in almost 28 percent of all his plate appearances. His 1995 season for Low-A Clinton went just about as unsuccessfully, with a .238/.344/.314 line, but this time his BB% was close to 14 percent, and he was able to cut down his K% to 22 percent.

High-A Rancho Cucamonga in the Cal League was the next stop for Matthews, and his first hints at production appeared here, although in a subtle manner:

Year  AB   AVG /OBP / SLG  SecA  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B  BB%   K%
1996  435  .271/.360/.418  .283  33%  .147   32   12.1%  20.6%
1997  268  .302/.410/.478  .381  33%  .176   19   15.5%  18.0%

His walk rate looks swell, and his strikeout rates dropped while he increased his power and batting average, but let’s be honest, he was 22 and 23 years old, hardly young for the level, and he was repeating it in 1997. Upon promotion to Double-A Mobile at the end of the ’97 season, Matthews struggled, although he kept his walk rate steady. However, repeating at Double-A, he was able to carry over his 1997 Cal League success into the 1998 season:

Year  AB   AVG/ OBP /SLG   SecA  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B  BB%   K%
1998  254  .307/.430/.480  .429  33%  .173   19   17.8%  16.2%

More impressive is the fact that these numbers were compiled in a year in which a wrist strain derailed his season from April 25 until July 4. He was still 24 and in Double-A, but the steady increase in plate patience in combination with the decreasing strikeout rates were certainly positive signs. One thing to note about the increase in his production is a higher batting average on balls in play; he was between .340 and .360 at each stop from 1996 through 1998 after two years much closer to .300. A significant portion of that increase may have had to do with the decrease in strikeouts for Matthews; with more balls in play, there was more of a chance that he would get a hit.

Matthews was promoted to Triple-A Las Vegas in the Pacific Coast League for the 1999 season; I am not sure “disappointing” appropriately describes his numbers after consistent improvement. He hit only .256/.346/.386, and his K% hopped back up over 20 percent to 21.7. He nevertheless got a September call-up, but he struggled in his 36 at-bats of major league ball. The Padres apparently felt they had waited long enough for Matthews to develop, so prior to the start of the 2000 season, they dealt him to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for RHP Rodney Myers.

Matthews started the year in Triple-A Iowa, where he didn’t perform all that much better than he had in Las Vegas the previous season, putting together a miserable .242/.300/.393 season before the Cubs called him up in June. He collected his first major league home run off of another nomad, Bruce Chen, then with the Atlanta Braves. From 2000 to 2001 with Chicago, Matthews did nothing with the bat to inspire confidence:

Year  AB   AVG /OBP /SLG   SecA  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B  BB%   K%
2000  158  .190/.264/.297  .222  23%  .107   3    8.6%   16.0%
2001  258  .217/.320/.364  .302  34%  .147   10   12.6%  18.2%

The Cubs soured on Matthews even faster than the Padres did, enabling the Pittsburgh Pirates to swoop in and collect him off of waivers on August 1, 2000. In a relatively small sample of 147 at-bats, Matthews was able to improve, hitting .245/.341/.401 for the Bucs. As far as BABIP goes, his MLB career went nothing like his minor league career up through 2000; his BABIPs ranged from .206 to .296 during his stops at San Diego, Chicago, and Pittsburgh.

The Mets picked up Matthews from the Pirates in exchange for cash considerations in December of 2001, but after only a single at-bat for New York, he was shipped to Baltimore for LHP John Bale. Seemingly out of nowhere, Matthews then hit .276/.355/.427 and stole 15 bases with a 75 percent success rate in 344 at-bats for the O’s. Baseball Prospectus 2003 details the Orioles options heading into the 2003 season:

Test #1 for the next Oriole GM will be what to do about center field. When you have a player who puts up Equivalent Averages of .220, .204, .237, and (at age 27) .291, you have two basic choices. Option one is give the player a chance in the spring to show you that this was no fluke, while being ready to move very quickly if (as is likely) his fairy godmother doesn’t grant him an extension. Option two is to decide that it was no fluke and discard your backups on the assumption that he can handle the role full-time.

The Orioles are pursuing the second option with a vengeance, having non-tendered Chris Singleton. In this special case, Option two may not be such a bad idea, but not because of the talents involved. I’d give 2-1 odds that Singleton outhits Matthews in 2003. The kicker is that the Orioles aren’t going to contend in 2003, regardless of who’s in center field. By the time they are ready to contend again, Singleton won’t be a useful player, but Matthews could be, if 2002 wasn’t a fluke. Matthews will be a lot cheaper than Singleton this year, plus there’s Luis Matos and Darnell McDonald to fall back on if he crashes and burns. It’s a risk a competitive team should not take, but for a down-and-out team it might just work.

Update: It didn’t work. Little Sarge returned to the lines of yesteryear, hitting a paltry .204/.250/.327 while walking in only five percent of all of his plate appearances. He was able to turn it around with San Diego later in the year after they claimed him on waivers near the end of May, but his slugging percentage remained under .400, and that was in the pre-Petco days. Baseball Prospectus 2004 had a tone that I found interesting for the Matthews’ comment:

Matthews hits a little from both sides of the plate, gets on base, runs well enough to steal 15 bases and pinch-run. If his name was Brian Smith, he might have settled into a career by now, but the expectation that he can be more, like his father was, keep teams from seeing him for what he is.

PECOTA forecasted a .233/.305/.355 line, which made a great deal of sense considering Matthews’ almost complete lack of production at the major league level, excepting his one full season in Baltimore. The Rangers came calling in 2004, signing Matthews and placing him back in Triple-A to start the season until late May, when both Brian Jordan and Kevin Mench visited the disabled list. Matthews had been tearing up Oklahoma–somewhat expected from a 29-year-old in Triple-A–with an OPS over 1000 and a walk rate over 13 percent. Once he reached Texas, he had the most productive season of his career, slugging .461 and walking in 10.4 percent of all PA. PECOTA nevertheless forecasted a .272/.300/.375 line for the 2005 season, rates that he bested by finishing at .255/.320/.436. Not the most impressive line, but when combined with his defense–The Fielding Bible had Matthews as a +5 in center field in 2005–he had a fine season.

Which brings us up to 2006, which as you know, has been Matthews’ breakout in a way that has many analysts buzzying in ways you never thought you’d hear at the mention of his name. PECOTA expected a repeat of his 2005 campaign, forecasting a .267/.329/.435 season. Instead, he put up a .313/.371/.495 season. How was Matthews able to do this during his Age-31 campaign, especially when even the best of his minor league numbers never pointed towards that type of season? ake a look at what was happening in his plate appearances:

Year  P/PA  FB%   LINERD%  GB%   IF/F%  HR/F%  BABIP
2004  3.8   31.1%  23.7%  45.2%   N/A   14.4%  .322
2005  3.8   31.8%  16.8%  51.4%  19.5%  12.3%  .283
2006  3.7   30.2%  18.8%  51.0%   9.4%  11.0%  .349

We can see a serious decrease in line drive percentage from 2004 to 2005, as well as an increase in groundball percentage. This, along with the lofty popup totals, was most likely the cause of his low BABIP for the 2005 season. He was perfectly in line with his expected BABIP–.12 + LINERD% = estimated BABIP–for 2005, but he was .041 points over during the 2006 season. Given that his power and walk rates are essentially the same, and there’s almost no change in his pitches per plate appearance either, his 2006 breakout can be mostly chalked up to what happened with his BABIP. Taking the .041 of extra points into account, we could reasonably say that Matthews’ line should have looked like .272/.330/.454, assuming that all of the extra hits were singles, of course. Although still an improvement on 2005, that’s nowhere near the “breakout” season that many are discussing.

Sometime very soon, someone is going to overpay for Gary Matthews Jr. His defense is one of his stronger points, but he won’t be getting much better out there at 32. His bat is fine for a center fielder, but with age he’ll need to move to a corner. His hitting prowess most likely won’t improve any, and it’s below-average for right and left field. If a team had stuck with Matthews in the past, there is a chance that he would have put together a decent career, and he may still do that, but chances are good that he’s not going to earn the All-Star tag again for whichever team decides to throw multi-year money his way.

Marc Normandin is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Marc by clicking here or click here to see Marc’s other articles.

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