The Mathis Mystique

Toronto Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthopolous, in a bid to get people to start calling him “Double Down,” has re-signed back-up catcher and Angels legend Jeff Mathis for a guaranteed two years and $3 million with a club option for 2015. I just went back and checked — this does not seem to be an Onion article. Seriously, though, teams have their reasons for doing things like this, even if they are not always apparent (or good). Let’s try and think it through.

Jeff Mathis is having the best year of his career with the bat. That might initially sound like a justification for giving him a multi-year extension at this point. That is, until one realizes that Mathis’ career year is a 76 wRC+. Some players have problematic bats because they either do not walk enough or have overly high strikeout rates. Mathis manages to combine both. A few seasons ago his walk rate was all right, but the last three seasons (including 2012) have been dreadful in that regard. There are some players who can make a five or six percent walk rate work by way of excellent contact skills, but Mathis has not had a single-season strikeout rate under 25 percent since 2006. Just looking at the current season, one might have hope that his BABIP would improve via simple regression, but his .256 BABIP in 2012 is right in line with a career .250 BABIP over 1507 plate appearances. Mathis has simply never hit the ball that hard.

Or does he? Mathis has never had good power, but it was okay prior to 2009, when it collapsed for three years. In 2012, he caught the Toronto magic and has a .194 ISO. The average speed and distance of his home runs are also up. The truth is, a 76 wRC+ is not bad for a backup catcher with some defensive skills. However, that a just 147 plate appearances this season based on a power spike. Mathis may have made some adjustments to his swing this year, but he has 1300 plate appearances prior to this season of being much worse. His plate discipline is poor as it has always been, and a slightly more hitter-friendly park cannot do everything. Mathis is going to be 30 next year, it is not as if he is likely to be hitting his peak. Oliver forecasts a .245 wOBA for next year. Even adding 10 points onto that, Mathis looks like a sub-replacement level catcher if his defense is average.

But, of course, that is supposed to be the thing with Jeff Mathis. That is what kept Mike Scioscia giving Mathis all that playing time all those years in front of Mike Napoli for the Angels. While some catcher fielding systems like his work behind the plate more than others, none of them are blown away by Mathis’ as either a pitch-blocker or a gunner. That is not to say that those systems are perfect, but they do tend to like the catchers one would expect: Yadier Molina, Matt Wieters, and the like.

That is not all there is to catching. Catcher pitch framing is that latest and greatest thing in catcher defense metrics, and Mike Fast found that Mathis saved his team about seven run above average per 120 games from 2007 to 2011 in this respect. That does add to his value. But given a projected wOBA over around .250 for 2012, being a few runs above average in this respect basically gets back around replacement level, maybe a bit above.

And that is the the big question — assuming we are roughly in the right ballpark with this evaluation, why sign Mathis for multiple years if Mathis just another “fungible,” replacement-level player? Obviously, the Jays want a bit of reassurance next behind J.P. Arencibia, who is currently on the disabled list. Mathis pretty much fits the description of the generic backup catcher (assuming his glove and pitch-framing skills really are more awesome than the stats tell us, or that his bat is better than the projections — because according to the numbers, he’s actually probably worse than for example, Humberto Quintero). Yorvit Torrealbea was recently signed to a minor-league deal to give a bit more depth, but this move shows that Mathis is meant to be the Assistant Man for the time being.

There is also the matter of Travis d’Arnaud, one of the best hitting prospects in the minor leagues. The Blue Jays’ stud prospect has missed a chunk of time this season with injury, but given that he has raked in the minors the last two seasons, he is the obvious heir apparent for catcher. This makes the signing all the more puzzling, however. Assuming d’Arnaud heals well and is up, say, mid-way through 2013 (a reasonable timetable, perhaps even conservative), what was the points of signing Mathis for two years? Trade value?

That was a throw-away joke, but perhaps the points was to have a back-up (and, as the stories will go, a “mentor”) ready for d’Arnaud in Mathis, and that when he comes up the team can trade Arencibia. That makes some sense, as Arencibia basically hits for power and, well, that’s about it. Still, he’s a young, cost-controlled catcher who can start without killing a team, that has some value. But not great value. However, if the team is so concerned about uncertainty with their catchers — and given what we know about the difficulties even the best prospects can face, it seems like it would make more sense to keep Arencibia around until d’Arnaud is a bit more established. They can still trade d’Arnaud, and even if (somehow) they cannot find someone as “good” as Mathis, the drop off would not be that big. Moreover, it should be pointed out that Arencibia will still be making less than Mathis in 2013, at least.

Moreover, why give Mathis two years guaranteed? Again, I acknowledge that teams know more than we do, e.g., maybe they have reason to think that Mathis can maintain this season’s “breakout” at the plate. Still, I can only go off of the data accessible to me. Players like Mathis have their uses. So to John McDonald and Willie Bloomquist. I bring up those players for a reason, as they also got rather inexplicable deals after last season. Of course, $1.5 million a year is not that much, relatively speaking. If that is the price that the Toronto needs for peace of mind, that sort of makes sense. As is frequently pointed out, Rogers Communications is one of the wealthiest owners in the major leagues.

Overall, this is not a big problem. Even if the Jays decide to keep Arencibia after d’Arnaud comes up and cut Mathis loose, well, teams have eaten way more than what Mathis is getting paid. However, if (when?) Mathis returns to his old self, it will be something unpleasant to swallow. Teams tend to like to have these sort of players, players who “know their role” on the team and will not complain about playing time and so forth. I am not going to completely discount this element. On the other hand, when executives give multi-year contracts to players like Bloomquist, McDonald, and, yes, Jeff Mathis, they had better not be heard publicly complaining about payroll at a later date.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

31 Responses to “The Mathis Mystique”

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  1. Well-Beered Englishman says:

    Does this mean we have to find someone else to fawn over as the supergenius of the MLB?

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    • Hmm says:

      If AA is as smart as many of us think he is who the hell are we to say signing Mathis as a backup is a horrible Idea.

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      • ezb230 says:

        We are people who’ve seen Jeff Mathis play baseball. Of course, at 1.5 mil per, it probably can’t be that terrible. That’s probably less than they’re paying the guy in the white shirt.

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  2. Jeff Mathis does Steroids says:

    Anyone who has seen me post here knows that I buy into the Jeff Mathis Mystique.

    AA to needs to trade Mike Napoli J.P Arencibia this offseason to the Rangers for Frank Fransico Mark Lowe.

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  3. Radivel says:

    The best part about this Mathis signing was the reaction of annoying resident Blue Jays talking head Gregg Zaun, who is apparently the future Tony Reagins or Omar Minaya. When Zaun was asked about his thoughts on the contract, whether it was a bad deal for the Jays or not, he replied that he thought it was a bad deal, but not for the Jays – that it was a bad deal for Jeff Mathis!

    By Zaun’s thinking, Mathis left a lot of money on the table because now that he’s out from the confines of Mike Scioscia and is being given the chance to play as an everyday player, he’s exploded into productivity.

    The long and the short of it is that Gregg Zaun is continuing his quest to make all Jays fans think of “Three Ways to Get Rid of Gregg Zaun”.

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    • Evil says:

      While Zauns short comings are many, what you failed to take into account is that “when” he is fired for stepping too far beyond the company line, they will bring in another Rogers shoe shine boy, whose soul job is to help brain wash most of the naive fan base, to regurgitate what Rogers PR department tells him to write / say, ya know the way everybody else not named Zaun currently does.

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  4. jj3bagger says:

    Perhaps the Blue Jays needed another arm in the pen ?

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  5. J6takish says:

    I think this is just to add to his value to sweeten the inevitable Mathis for Trout trade

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  6. Darren says:

    No catcher fielding metric is perfect. However DRS says that Mathis was the 3rd best fielding catcher in baseball from 2009-2012 with 24 runs saved, behind Yadi and Ruiz. He was 2nd with 15 Good Fielding Play runs. The Fielding Bible says that this includes events like plate blocking, covering 1st base on over throws, preventing passed balls etc.. Obviously the Jays are seeing something that cant be documented in traditional stats that is providing some value beyond a very weak bat.

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  7. Richie says:

    In terms of ‘knowing their role’, I wouldn’t award Mathis any points on that. When Scioscia FIN-ally benched him last year, Mathis screamed like a banshee.

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  8. Anthony says:

    if his true value is in the hundreds of thousands, a $3M deal is not that bad. payroll being too high in the future will not be because they gave mathis $300k more per year than they should have. and if we have any faith in the blue jays, then this is a pretty rationale, unremarkable deal

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    • Anthony says:

      oh, and he currently makes $1.5M, made $1.7M prior year. the amounts we’re talking about are so small (in baseball’s economic terms) that big % over payments are really not significant

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  9. Chris says:

    $5 MM per WAR — career -.9 WAR

    Surprised Mathis isn’t paying them to play in the major leagues

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  10. Weznoth says:

    As an Angels fan, I rage like a violent volcanic eruption whenever I hear that mans name. I read this article because I felt I needed to do some penance.

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  11. Alex says:

    I doubt Mathis’ power surge will fade. Dwayne Murphy has been very good at taking in similar profiles and making them succeed.

    In fact, look at a few Jays catchers over the past couple of years.

    John Buck, Jose Molina, Jeff Mathis, and even Raul Chavez have had career years at the plate for the Jays with Murphy.

    Buck and Molina’s OPS have dropped .200 points since leaving the Jays. Chavez never made it back to the Majors.

    It’s reasonable to suspect that Mathis can keep his current line up. He was also a regarded prospect, wasn’t he?

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  12. paint771 says:

    Maybe I’m the only person in the world that thinks this signing is defensible. I could honestly care less about the value of Mathis, but look at the value of this kind of organization philosophy.

    AA has clearly signaled he has a certain philosophy about signings. Namely, he is perfectly willing to potentially overpay on low-ticket contracts, assuming it comes with control, as long as it’s a person the organization likes, the staff likes, the clubhouse likes. Think the Dustin McGowan contract, also widely panned, which is I think the precedent here. He’s willing to take chances on veterans that haven’t lived up to potential and may never (EE, Bautista, Davis, every fourth outfielder they’ve had in the last three years, now Mathis) or prospects that don’t necessary project as All-Stars (all their draft picks this year, a lot of their young bullpen guys or stand-in starters over the last years) or even high-ceiling guys that other organizations just plain don’t like (Rasmus, Escobar). He gets all these guys on relatively small-ball contracts with a lot of club control, and he passed on the big ticket marquee players that many teams sink a ton of money into.

    Which makes a certain amount of sense. The difference between signing a backup catcher for $800k a year versus $1.5 million is peanuts – it’s the difference between a $8 million a year and an $18 million a year guy that kills you. You’d have to throw in several Mathis/McGowan’s to even make a dent in a Vernon Wells type contract. And for every one overpaid contract you hand out trying to extend a guy like Shawn Marcum or Alex Rios, you instead get 20 guys like Mathis, H. Alvarezs, Villaneuvas, Encarnacions, Perezes, Bautistas, etc.

    18 of them might wind up sucking and not being worth the money – which is to say overpaid by a few hundred thousand or even a few million – but you also wind up with a lot of players at low cost and if even 2 of them wind up proving themselves as big league starters with surprising production (ala those guys I mentioned above), you suddenly look up and have a low-cost team of guys under a lot of club control, no monster money-sucks on the payroll hamstringing you, those 18 losers not being so over-signed that you can’t probably still deal many of them to clubs in short-term desperation or with gaping holes, and the flexibility to hand out more money to young guys or push all-in on the final pieces you need to content (say, starting pitching, in this case).

    And that’s not even counting the value of signaling to players who may not have been pegged as destined for superstardom since they were 15 that Toronto is a good org to play for and an org willing to show loyalty and faith even against their bottom line. That has value independent of any individual contracts. We wonder sometimes why Toronto has had success turning around players. This, I think, is a part of it – they know they don’t have to be a superstar or a high-ceiling 18 year old for the organization to take a flier on them, if they work hard, keep their head down, and commit. You don’t think a ton of guys who have struggled, both in Toronto’s org and out, notice when guys like McGowan and Mathis get extended there?

    Honestly, it makes a lot of sense. I’ve seen a lot of teams screw themselves by overspending on established stars and “sure things” who the stats all agree are awesome and chasing those marquee guys AFTER they’ve hit. I’ve seen very few screw themselves by signing too many low-cost long-term contracts to players that aren’t highly valued by stats or scouts. Again, I’ll take 20 McGowans and Mathis’ against 1 Vernon Wells, every day of the week.

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    • Evil says:

      English communications 101
      “If you can’t say it in a paragraph, two or less, don’t bother saying it at all”

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    • dougiejays says:

      I like this point a lot, even if I don’t necessarily see much upside in Mathis himself. (As much as I’d like to believe they can turn him into something, he hasn’t been a subpar hitter throughout his career, he’s been beyond atrocious. Worse than Johnny Mac ever was.)

      If you look back to what Bautista and Edwin were making in 2008 and 2009, when everyone and their uncle was complaining about how a couple million dollars could have been better allocated sweetening the pot on some free agent superstar, and compare them to the value the team is getting out of each player today for far more money, there’s something to be said for keeping a guy around when the cost doesn’t exorbitantly outweigh the upside. You succeed best through paying guys less than what they’re giving you, and if that means spending $20M on 10 replacement level players with upside instead of $20M on Carl Crawford, more the power.

      But I guess it’s just a question of where to draw the line. And Mathis is pretty much the line.

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    • Mark says:

      “or even high-ceiling guys that other organizations just plain don’t like (Rasmus, Escobar)”

      Unless of course your name is Travis Snider, in which case it’s cool to flip him for a reliever.

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  13. Evil says:

    The most expensive things in life cost $20, $20, $20, etc

    So when a team with the richest owners in baseball eats Teahans contract, gives McGowan 3mil, Mathis, Ben Fransisco, The Mets 1b whose name I won’t repeat and so on, you have to wonder why instead of trying to catch lightening in a bottle, they don’t just sign good players (above average) to contracts instead of an accumulation of garbage at $20 a piece.

    I don’t care who you are, including Jays front office employees, it’s got to be hard to gauge what way is really up with this team. So many good moves, so many bad ones, veterans, minor leagues, drafts, cost cutting, over spending on trash, all while the ownership group who owns the stadium, parking, concessions, tv, radio and advertizes on every inch of it, sits back collecting the money.

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  14. Jays2010 says:

    I feel confident that AA is well aware of all the key points in this article so obviously he feels there is more value than doller per fWAR could ever capture.

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  15. Uh Oh Cordero says:

    Did you take into account the fact that he has been a shutdown reliever this season whenever they’ve called on him?

    Jeff Mathis 2013 Cy Young you heard it here first.

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  16. Radivel says:

    He just hit another HR. 7th this year. Man, what a beast! haha.

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  17. Zman says:

    You also have to point out that with the defensive metrics during those years Mathis had half the innings to do it in. This puts him closer to wieters and yadier type numbers on defense. Not bad for a backup catcher.

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  18. DD says:

    Ok, so AA’s philosophy is:
    Trade Mike Napoli
    Extend Jeff Mathis

    Got it. Maybe the next move is to hire Mike Scoscia?

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  19. josh says:

    There’s also this line from Toronto Star’s article about how Colby Rasmus has turned his career around in Toronto:

    “Blue Jays centrefielder Colby Rasmus has found a kindred spirit in teammate Jeff Mathis”

    Apparently Mathis is the best friend Colby’s got on the team… so if a shitty backup catcher is what it takes to make Colby be all that Colby can be… maybe?

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  20. Guillermo Frijole says:

    In 2002, Mike “The Pastanator” Scioscia led a ragtag bunch of misfits behind German lines and captured a World Series for the geographically confused fans of the Anaheim Angels of the City of the Angels in California. In doing so, for super-mega-bonus points, he denied a ring to Barry Bonds, a total a-hole. Mike Scioscia became a god to Angels fans.

    Starting in 2006, for the next five years, Scioscia gave a thousand ABs to Jeff Mathis, who appeared to be the-worst-offensive-player-to-ever-get-a-thousand-at-bats. Mathis is what he is, but a sizeable slice of Angels fans have never looked at Mike Scioscia the same.

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    • Guillermo Frijole says:

      Perhaps I should’ve said “soon to be geographically confused”. The team was undeniably the Anaheim Angels of Disneyland at the time, but most fans wish they would just return the the plain old California Angels.

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