Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 8/15/12

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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