Once you pick your jaw up off the floor and finish scratching your head in a puzzled fashion, the Jeff Mathis extension does, sort of, make a lot of sense. If you somehow hadn’t heard, the Blue Jays have signed the veteran catcher to a two year extension covering 2013 and 2014, in which he’ll earn 1.5 million per year. The deal also includes a club option for 2015, valued at 1.5 million as well.
While Mathis hit .276/.339/.444 (.783 OPS) across parts of eight minor league seasons, it’s become resoundingly clear that the major league version of the catcher is a significantly worse hitter than that. In his 1507 major league plate appearances spanning eight years, he’s hit just .196/.256/.312 (.568 OPS). That’s historically bad, and a significant enough sample size that you can say, with the utmost confidence, he is who we thought he was. Mathis is actually having his best offensive season to date here in 2012, as his 76 wRC+ and .286 wOBA represent career highs. Both are still significantly below league average, which indicates just how bad he is at the plate.
Even so, the team didn’t acquire Mathis for his bat, they desired his ability to play defense and handle a pitching staff. According to a study done in 2011 by Mike Fast, formerly of Baseball Prospectus, Mathis has been above average at framing pitches every year from 2007 through 2011. Framing pitches, in short, is the catcher’s ability to trick an umpire into calling a ball a strike through, among other things, keeping a stiff wrist and subtly pulling your glove closer to the zone as you catch the ball. In total, he saved 19 runs across the five years, and when considering playing time, it came out as 7 runs saved per 120 games. Both figures are above average, but well behind the “elite” defensive catchers such as Jose Molina, who’s saved 73 total runs and 35 per 120 games over that timeframe.
His arm strength is above average, but throughout his career he’s been just league average at catching potential base stealers. Mathis has been significantly better this season, as with a 39% caught stealing rate he’s well above the league average of 26%. The reason behind this drastic change is difficult to surmise. A quick look at J.P. Arencibia’s defensive numbers show a similar trend, so it’s possible the abundance of left handed starters on the staff – who can inherently hold runners closer to first – has been the cause. Perhaps it’s a new technique that bench coach Don Wakamatsu taught the two catchers, but either way, history suggests he’s more of an average thrower than anything spectacular.
While with Los Angeles, Mathis learned under baseball guru Mike Scoscia. The Angels skipper spent 13 years in the major leagues, and was known for his defensive prowess behind the plate. As such, he did his best to impress his knowledge onto the catchers on his roster, and gave favor to those who showed an ability to handle a staff. Scoscia obviously saw that trait in Mathis, as year after year he stole plate appearances from the far superior player in Mike Napoli. As you can see in the table below, there was a method to his madness, as Mathis’ catcher ERA has been better than the team ERA in each of the six seasons he’s seen significant playing time. At this volume of innings, it’s not just a coincidence or statistical anomaly. I don’t know exactly what it means, but it’s definitely something.
In summary, Mathis is a well below average hitter, an average thrower, and a well above average receiver. That’s not necessarily someone you want to pencil into the lineup for 120 games every year, but it’s the ideal skill set for a backup catcher, which is the role the Blue Jays have set in place for Mathis. It’s a huge positive for Toronto as well, as regardless of who the team decides upon for their starting catcher in 2013, they’ll be young, and the knowledge Mathis can pass on from the Scoscia tree of learning over the next two years has value beyond his personal statistics. Despite his offensive short comings, 1.5 million per year seems perfectly fair for both sides.
The question we can now ask is, who will be the Blue Jays starting catcher next season? It was a long shot to begin with, but the Mathis extension all but guarantees that J.P. Arencibia and Travis d’Arnaud will never be sitting in a major league dugout together in months not named September. d’Arnaud’s bat would be wasted at first base, while Arencibia simply doesn’t have enough contact in his swing to be acceptable at a non-catcher position. The Blue Jays number one prospect will be 24 on Opening Day, and with a .914 OPS in Double-A and .975 OPS in Triple-A over the past two years, it’s fair to say he has nothing left to learn down in the minor leagues. An offseason trade has become a necessity, as another year in Triple-A would do nothing for Travis’ trade value. Does the team go with the clubhouse leader and established starter in J.P. Arencibia, or with the top prospect with All-Star upside in Travis d’Arnaud?
Whoever the team decides to part with would likely be a piece in a trade for a starting pitcher. Miami, Pittsburgh, and the Cubs immediately come to mind as potential catcher-needy destinations, and each team has a starter the Blue Jays could and should be looking at, a pair of whom were caught in trade rumors at last month’s deadline. Josh Johnson (MIA) and Matt Garza (CHC) would each be excellent targets, particularly if the team sincerely wants to compete in 2013. James McDonald of Pittsburgh may be a more desirable target for the Blue Jays, however, as the right hander is under control through 2015. The Pirates may see him as a surplus, with former #1 overall pick Gerrit Cole not far away. As crazy as it sounds, this Jeff Mathis extension just made the offseason a whole lot more interesting.