Is Matsui a Potential Problem?

When the Angels signed Hideki Matsui to be their DH and maybe a part time outfielder, it seemed like a pretty good fit on the surface. As RJ noted at the time, Matsui brings a left-handed bat to a team that could use one, and he should still be a productive hitter in 2010. On a one year contract for just over $6 million, he’s not a bad deal. However, I wonder what effect this move will have on the rest of the roster.

As we saw in October, Mike Scioscia sees value in having Jeff Mathis behind the plate. Mike Napoli played 18 games at designated hitter a year ago as the Angels worked his bat into the line-up without making him squat behind the plate. Napoli was the most commonly used DH for the Angels besides Vladimir Guerrero.

With Matsui on the roster, that option is pretty limited. They could use Napoli as Matsui’s platoon partner, using him at DH when a lefty is on the hill, but is Scioscia goinig to want to limit himself to only using Mathis against southpaws? Keep in mind that Mathis started 78 games in the regular season a year ago and then essentially became the starting catcher in the ALCS.

I find it unlikely that Scioscia would scale back Mathis’ role this year, given his preference for his skills behind the plate. So, while Matsui offers the potential of a productive DH, I have to wonder what the opportunity cost associated with having him on the roster is. If Napoli’s playing time is cut significantly as a result, did the Angels really get that much better?

Matsui certainly provides depth, and Napoli’s injury history suggests that perhaps they couldn’t afford to count on him playing regularly, but after losing John Lackey and Chone Figgins and then losing out on the Roy Halladay sweepstakes, the Angels could use a premium player more than they could use multiple solid players. Especially with the moves being made in Seattle and Texas, the AL West appears to be up for grabs – Anaheim fans should be hoping that their new DH doesn’t take too much playing time from Napoli, or else their one off-season move so far won’t do much to keep the other teams from nipping at their heels.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

33 Responses to “Is Matsui a Potential Problem?”

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  1. The A Team says:

    Without doing an in-depth analysis, I’m having trouble ranking the Angels as anything other than 3rd in the AL West. The Rangers look like the best team to me, but I expect the Mariners to look slightly better before all is said and done. i’m afraid for Anaheim’s sake that they might try to go and overcompensate by signing a pitcher that won’t help them.

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  2. bikozu says:

    Double that with the fact that Abreu will be full-time OF. Then you have a no-defense DH on a team that could really use someone positionally versatile to spread the DH time around. Bad fit, I think.

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  3. hk says:

    I think the key to the deal working for the Angels if if Matsui can play OF once or twice per week. If so, and they start him in the field when facing RHP’s, Napoli can DH those games with Mathis behind the plate. If Matsui is forced to be a DH only again, Scioscia will have to decide between Napoli’s offense and Mathis’s defense.

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  4. JD says:

    Shouldn’t this article be titled Scioscia a potential problem?

    I, along with probably the overwhelming majority of all baseball fans, find the notion that Jeff Mathis should get anywhere near as much playing time as Mike Napoli to be completely absurd.

    I’m not an Angels fan and I live on the east coast, so I don’t catch that many games. But can there really be such a huge difference between their game calling and catching skills to warrant Napoli being in form of a time split with Mathis?

    Doesn’t seem like it (although I could be wrong), and I can’t see how anyone can blame Matsui for Jeff Mathis getting way too much playing time.

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    • No Homer says:

      A few weeks ago I was looking around the web for sites with catcher defense (good thing I forgot to bookmark them…), and in the 2 or 3 I came across, the range in run values was between -10 and +10.
      So, let’s look at last year’s offensive contribution from each (per 600 PAs):

      Napoli: 16.8 RAR
      Jeff Mathis: -30.2 RAR

      So, even if we assume Mathis is +10 and Napoli is -10 (again, it would help if I’d bookmarked), Napoli still ends up 6.8 runs above, while Mathis is 20 below. (IIRC, Napoli was about -8, Mathis about average, so Mathis is even worse than we thought).

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      • Choo says:

        The ex-catcher/manager has been studying the game from his unique perspective for half a century or more. He sees things on a pitch-by-pitch that none of us will ever see. For that reason, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his catcher of preference. However, due to the ex-catcher/manager’s intimacy with the catcher position, many of its skills and qualities don’t impact the game as much as he might believe. In the mind of the ex-catcher/manager, a catcher’s unique blend of confidence, communication, toughness, leadership, trust, and countless other unquantifiable nuances can transcend anything that can be quantified offensively or defensively. In Scioscia’s mind, this same transcendental aura is so powerful it can even counterbalance low contributions of said aura being exuded from the other 8 positions.

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    • TLB says:

      But Mathis can totally rake! We all saw the playoffs! They should just cut Napoli, he strikes out too much. They need Mathis — he’s gritty & calls a great game.

      (I feel the need to emphasize my sarcasm… just in case)

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  5. scatterbrian says:

    Also, if Matsui is playing one or two a week in the OF and Napoli DHs, they’re taking PAs away from Juan Rivera, who was no slouch last season. Seems like most games the Angels will have a starter-worthy player on the bench.

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  6. MLB News says:

    Nice post. I can see this as a decent signing for the Angels. Matsui is coming off a world series MVP and ring so his stock is quite high right now. As long as he stays as a DH and remains healthy I think that he will be worth every penny to the Angels. I see this as more of an upside signing for the Angels because they do have the money to spend.

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  7. Mick Lowe says:

    no problem with this arrangement, what’s the difference with matsui dh or vladimir? this catching/dh arrangement is very much like the 2009 yankmees. it worked for them.

    this was slow news day article.

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    • SteveP says:

      The difference was between this arrangement and the 2009 Yankees is that Girardi didn’t insist on starting Molina behind the plate 50% of the time. Molina’s catching duties were strictly once a week and day game after a night game. In short, Mathis plays much more than Molina did with the Yanks, and this is why it is a problem for the Angels. They are starting a vastly inferior bat in the name of “defense” or “game-calling” while sitting a much superior offensive talent (whether that is Matsui, Napoli, or Rivera is TBD).

      However, you have a point, as they had a similar issue with Guerrero and Napoli last year, and at this point it appears Matsui is the better hitter than Guerrero.

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  8. Dan says:

    Matsui hits lefties just as good, if not better than righties: .618 sluggling vs. LHP, .465 slugging vs. RHP. He also had 13 HRs vs LHP in only 131 ABs, compared to 15 HRs vs RHP in 325 ABs.

    In other words, platooning him with Napoli would not make sense. Napoli vs LHP: .606 slugging and 6 HRs in 94 ABs….

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  9. MAC says:

    What problem? Matsui started 114 games at DH last year. Back in 2007 when he was still a semi-competent OFer, he played 143 games (32 at DH). He’s not going to keep Scioscia from finding PAs for other guys at DH or in LF. Expecting to get 600 PA out of Matsui would be the problem.

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  10. Daniel says:

    I don’t see this as a problem. First, Matsui is essentially taking Vlad’s place in the lineup, and based on Vlad’s production last year, should be able to out-produce him. Second, Matsui probably won’t be healthy all year, playing about 120 – 145 games or so, which will mean Napoli will be in the lineup. Third, Matsui is a lefty who hits well from both sides of the plate, a valuable commodity in the middle of the Angels’ order which can now go: Aybar (S), Abreu (L), Hunter (R), Morales (S), Matsui (L), Rivera (R).

    Fourth, and I haven’t seen this mentioned anywhere else, is that Napoli may have a ceiling on his playing time to be completely effective. He played 78 games in 2008 with a .960 OPS. At game 82 last season, he was sitting at .915. His OPS dropped 70 points over the rest of the season. Is he still better than Mathis? Yeah, but is he more likely to decline even further if Scioscia tries to play him 135 games instead of 115? Maybe that’s just a small sample size/stat anomaly. But it could be that Napoli can’t endure a full season of innings behind the dish, and Scioscia knows that.

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  11. sausagemcbiscuit says:

    Angels will win the west by 5+

    it’s a lock

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  12. bikozu says:

    Click on my name for a different kind of analysis on this deal… I just started a baseball blog but I think maybe I can give a different take on some things.

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  13. BikeToBigA says:

    I’m not sure metrics capture how poor and frustrating Napoli’s defensive issues are behind the plate. Scoscia obviously thinks highly of Mathis’ catching abilities and for good reason. Mathis was the preferred catcher of Lackey (like Molina/Burnett in the Yankees) I think simply because Napoli’s poor defense infuriated ill-tempered Lackey, who couldn’t grab Lackey’s sharp breaking ball. Napoli has especially poor catching abilities with breaking balls, letting countless balls escape to the back. That explains why Mathis was starting. Also, Napoli had a marked dropoff in offensive production in the second half of the season. Granted, most of this is anecdotal, but I’m sure the catching metrics you’re looking at, whatever they are, have no way of capturing what I witnessed in the past season. Also see this LA Times article from Sept:

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      If only someone kept track of how many pitches a catcher did not catch that he should have. Maybe we could call it “passed balls” or something?

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    • Joe R says:

      Catcher ERA is stupid, but here you go anyway:

      Mathis: 4.32 Run Average
      Napoli: 4.69 Run Average

      But does anyone believe that Napoli is 60 runs worth of extra overall badness on the defensive side per 162 game season vs. Mathis?

      Better example, Napoli has fielded 72 balls, 59 have turned into outs. Mathis 93, 88 have been outs. I’ll credit .2 runs saved for an out and -.49 (assume a single) when no out is made.

      Napoli: 59(.2) – 13(.49) = 5.43, 0.0754 runs/ball fielded
      Mathis: 88(.2) – 5(.49) = 15.15, 0.163 runs / ball fielded

      So, like, .0875 runs per ball fielded for Mathis. Last year combined, they fielded 54 balls. That’s a little under 5 runs for a season for Mathis. Greeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeat.

      (And don’t kill me for this halfassed methodology, I’m at work on Friday and done with my stuff for the week, so I’m killing time before I head to the Celtics game).

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  14. Rally says:

    It’s not a problem if Matsui takes playing time away from Napoli. The two are close enough to equal as hitters. It really wouldn’t matter to me which one was on the bench, if one had to sit. The problem here is giving too much playing time to Mathis. I have to worry that there could be a big cost to his doubles streak from the ALCS.

    As for offense, how many batters does each AL West team with a +10 runs CHONE projection or better? I’ll leave you with this.

    OAK 1
    TEX 2
    SEA 0
    LAA 6

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  15. Joe R says:

    From baseball projection / CHONE

    Napoli: +21 RAA/150, -6 glove
    Mathis: -22 RAA/150, 0 glove

    It’s basically costing the Angels 37 runs per 150 games every time they run Mathis out there.

    So basically, a 4-5 WAR Catcher being platooned needlessly (unless Napoli has real injury concerns, then total apology to Scoscia) with a replacement-bench level catcher. Stoneman should just trade Mathis so the temptation to overuse him isn’t even there.

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  16. ineedanap says:

    wrt Napoli v. Mathis

    There was alot going on, but does anyone remember Game 2 of the ALCS when play was stopped because apparently the umpire couldn’t see whether the pitches were balls or strikes because Napoli was blocking his view of the plate?

    Could this be a suitable reason for Scioscia’s preference for Mathis?

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    • Joe R says:

      Maybe a little, but Mathis is nowhere near enough of a defensive upgrade to balance out the bat.

      If the Angels want to go forward giving Mathis innings, they should’ve never bothered to sign Matsui. Even as a full time DH and no improvement in his hitting from it (which is unlikely), he’d be an above average contributor over the course of the season. And of course, like most every catcher, he’s slightly better in the first half.

      All I’m saying is the Angels are blocking a good player, and it’s dumb. CHONE has Napoli as 35 runs / 150 better than Mathis (that includes his defense, which CHONE pretty much mocks). I’m sure Scioscia’s heard it all before, though. Maybe he knows something about Napoli we don’t, like maybe he can only handle 75-90 games a year at C.

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  17. Mike says:

    Carlos Zambrano sports a higher career OPS than Jeff Mathis.

    Maybe they should DH for Mathis instead of the pitcher?

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  18. hugh s says:

    Nice call Dave. Napoli is now just a back-up catcher, even though he is one of the 5-10 best catchers in baseball.

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