The Mathis Line: a new frontier of mediocrityby Chris Lund
August 30, 2011
Jeff Mathis has had a tough go since becoming a big leaguer. He doesn't hit particularly well, his defense is distinctly average and he certainly seems to be on screen every time something goes horrifically wrong for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Let's make no mistake about it, Jeff Mathis is a bad major league baseball player.
The most interesting part of his mediocrity, in this writer's opinion, is how unlikely it is. That's not to say there is a bevy of talent in Mathis' body waiting to explode into the next Johnny Bench—under no circumstances will that happen—but there is a serious argument to be made for "The Mathis Line" to replace "The Mendoza Line" as we forge further into the 21st century's baseball history. I would like to propose said line to all of you.
The comparison to the traditional Mendoza Line is certainly fitting for Mathis. His career .196 batting average is among the 100 worst all-time marks for batters who have over 1,000 plate appearances. Mathis' average is good for one spot better than Rich Morales, who had a horrid career for the White Sox and Padres in the late 1960s and early 1970s, while putting him one spot behind Sam Jones, a pitcher, who played from 1914-1935. To make things worse, both players have higher walk rates than our protagonist.
Mathis' on-base plus slugging percentage is equally staggering. With a career OPS of .561 Mathis ranks almost exclusively among the who's who of pitchers and all-time worst batters in major league baseball. For instance, Mathis narrowly beats out Art Nehf in the all-time OPS rankings. In 1924, Nehf once had one of the best offensive seasons for a pitcher and his five home runs in one season has been bested only twice by pitchers in the last decade. Mike Hampton hit seven in 2001, while Carlos Zambrano hit six in 2006. Mathis' 2008 season in which he hit nine home runs is the lone campaign where he topped those three pitchers.
Perhaps the most telling stat of these is Mathis' career scaled runs created per PA (wRC+) which is a paltry 45, with 100 the average. Of the approximately 3,700 major leaguers who have registered 1,000 PAs in their careers, Mathis ranks 110th worst of all time. Mathis scores in the third percentile in all of baseball history in wRC+, a number which may be the best measure of a players' offensive production. Jeff Mathis is a living, breathing, playing equivalent to a last place major league team. This coincides with the fact that he is dead last among in wRC+ this season.
Currently, of all major leaguers with over 230 PAs, Mathis holds, or challenges for, last place in every semi-meaningful statistic. Three examples include the following:
.180 BA—second worst
.484 OPS—Second worst
With this in mind, I propose the Jeff Mathis rule: For every category you wish to rank, anyone who falls in the bottom three percent is below "The Mathis Line."
Consider the following players below "The Mathis Line." Using a small test group of the 156 players who have at least 400 PAs anoints the bottom five in each category with the dubious distinction:
AVG: Adam Dunn, Kelly Johnson, Alex Rios, Vernon Wells, Miguel Olivo, Justin Smoak (Olivo and Smoak tied)
OPS: Alex Rios, Adam Dunn, Orlando Cabrera, Aaron Hill, Alex Gonzalez
wRC+: Alex Rios, Orlando Cabrera, Adam Dunn, Alex Gonzalez, Alcides Escobar
By keeping The Mathis Line proportional to the test group you figure out which players are truly Mathis-esque amongst the type of player you're examining. Jeff Mathis would never be among the 400 PA group because no manager would send him to the plate 400-plus times a season as an everyday player—the regular players in the above three examples give us an idea of who is Mathis-esque. Feel free to apply this rule to any qualifications and make the corresponding inferences.
At 28 years old, Mathis is in his prime.
Once again I declare: Jeff Mathis is playing the best baseball he will ever be physically capable of playing barring some sort of religious intervention.
Whether Jeff Mathis is remembered as the Mario Mendoza of this generation remains to be seen, but if the status quo holds Mendoza will still have bragging rights over Mathis. Over the course of Mendoza's 1981 season—his best as a pro—he was a 0.7 WAR player; Mathis' best season to date was 2007 when he managed 0.2 WAR.
While Mathis will never be remembered for his stellar use of a bat, his slick defensive plays or his effortless base running, maybe, just maybe, he will be remembered for the bar he set for batters everywhere and how many of them hit it while trying to jump over it each season.
References and Resources
All stats—historical and current—came courtesy of Fangraphs.
Chris is a writer-at-large and encourages you to talk baseball.
For further baseball discussion, you can follow him on twitter under @thechrislund or send him an e-mail at chris (dot) lund89 AT gmail (dot) com