In the wake of Sunday afternoon’s riveting walk-off grand slam, it’s easy to speak highly of Jeff Mathis. Truth be told, I was writing this piece in the hours before the grand slam, and in my jubilation I managed to think about trashing this post. But then I looked at the numbers: a .129/.191/.306 slash line in 62 at bats – AFTER the walk-off. A career .195/.253/.314 slash line over 1,474 at bats. And I realized that this is still a valid question, or rather, a series of questions.
Why in heaven does Jeff Mathis still have a job? Why, in particular, does he have a job with the Marlins, a team that has a young catcher that was a top prospect and another in the minors that was once a first round draft pick? And how has a guy with a slash line so bad gotten FIFTEEN HUNDRED big league at bats? Fortunately, the answer to these questions is amazingly simple: defense.
It is true that defensive statistics are tricky and are certainly not perfect. Some people believe that defense is overstated. But any way you look at it, Mathis’s defensive value is so high that he’s worth having on a team, even if his offensive numbers are as bad as mine were in Little League.
Let’s start off really basic: the Marlins are 12-7 when Mathis starts. Win-loss records aren’t that telling, however, and the catcher isn’t like a quarterback is in football, so let’s delve deeper into the statistics and find what causes that record.
First, Mathis has thrown out an impressive 11 of 16 baserunners this season. Caught stealing percentage is one of the first topics to arise whenever discussing a catcher’s defense, and Mathis has been otherworldly this season. Additionally, pitchers’ ERA when Mathis is catching this season is 2.60; when he’s not catching, it’s 4.31, with the jettisoned Miguel Olivo weighing in at 4.08 and Rob Brantly ringing up a 4.43. Mathis’s 2.60 cERA (catcher’s earned run average) would far and away be in first place in the majors if he had enough innings to qualify. Of the 17 catchers who do qualify, Russell Martin is first with a 3.11 cERA, and Yadier Molina is second with a 3.21 ERA.
Of course, it’s easy to dismiss this: small sample size, right? Wrong. In his previous six seasons, Mathis’s cERA has always been at least half a run better than his teammates’, with his average difference 0.66.
PLAYER: Jeff Mathis Teammates
Year Team IC ERA IC ERA DIFF
2007 LAA 467.0 3.89 968.0 4.39 0.50
2008 LAA 793.1 3.65 658.0 4.40 0.75
2009 LAA 657.0 3.99 788.0 4.84 0.85
2010 LAA 553.2 3.67 895.2 4.27 0.60
2011 LAA 698.0 3.25 767.0 3.86 0.61
2012 TOR 532.2 4.39 911.0 4.79 0.40
Total 3701.2 3.77 4987.2 4.43 0.66
And just how good does the WAR statistic think Mathis’s defense is? Rob Brantly has a .238/.297/.287 slash line, good (or bad) for a .583 OPS. His WAR is -0.7. Jeff Mathis’s slash line gives him a .497 OPS – and a WAR of 0.2. That’s right – Mathis’s defense is so highly-regarded by the metrics that his OPS is nearly 100 points less than Brantly’s, and he’s still been worth nearly a full win more than his counterpart. And the naysayers might argue that Mathis has fewer at bats than Brantly, so his OPS is worth less in his WAR calculation. However, like the cERA stat, this holds true throughout Mathis’s six-year career. In his career, Mathis has a .567 OPS…and a 2.3 WAR. It’s amazing to have such a low OPS over so many at bats and not have a negative WAR.
There is no doubt whatsoever that Mathis provides so much defensively that he’s worth a spot on a Major League roster somewhere. But should that be with the Marlins, where he is taking at bats away from Brantly? It depends on whether you think Mathis’s contribution defensively is something that will stick after he’s off the team. Will whatever sequence of pitches he calls become impressed upon the Marlins’ young pitchers, helping them to better understand their repertoire throughout their careers? Will the confidence he instills in them stick with them regardless of who is behind the dish? Will he mentor young Rob Brantly, and perhaps even young Kyle Skipworth, so that they learn the art of his craft? That’s an argument that can’t be proven with statistics. For now, Mathis is taking some at bats away from Brantly.
And for now, I’m okay with it.