Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim manager Mike Scioscia knows a thing or two about catching. Scioscia crouched behind the dish for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1980-1992, and by all accounts, he was a skilled defender. According to Sean Smith‘s Historical WAR data, Scioscia saved 38 runs compared to an average catcher during the course of his career.
Given his background, it’s no surprise that Scioscia puts great emphasis on the defensive virtues of his catchers. His two current options, Jeff Mathis and Mike Napoli, have polar opposite reputations regarding their glove work. Mathis is praised for his defensive skills, while Napoli is panned for his problems behind the plate.
Last year, Napoli started 84 games for the Angels, while Mathis started 78 times. We’re just four games into the 2010 season, so it’s probably best not to make too much out of playing time patterns. But Mathis has started three games to Napoli’s one. With Hideki Matsui occupying the DH spot on most nights, Napoli’s potent lumber could gather dust if Scioscia continues to prefer Mathis at catcher. Is Scioscia’s decision costing the Angels runs?
Mathis and Napoli couldn’t be much different as far as catchers are concerned, with the former a “catch and throw” guy with a slack bat and the latter a questionable defender with an offensive profile that far surpasses most others who don the tools of ignorance (the average catcher hit .254/.320/.395 in 2009).
First, let’s start with the offense. The 27 year-old Mathis showed some potential with the stick in the minors in favorable offensive environments, but he holds a career .202/.277/.324 line in the majors, with a .265 wOBA. Mathis draws some walks (his 8.5 BB% is right around the MLB average), but he has limited power and struggles to make contact. There’s a consensus among the projection systems that Mathis is a poor hitter, even by the modest standards of the position that he plays:
CHONE: .283 wOBA
ZiPS: .286 wOBA
Oliver: .263 wOBA
Napoli, by contrast, has mashed to the tune of a .256/.357/.491 triple-slash in the majors, good for a .363 wOBA. His secondary skills are superb for any hitter, much less a catcher. Napoli has walked in 12.2 percent of his plate appearances, while posting a whopping .235 Isolated Power. The 28 year-old crushes fastballs (+0.91 runs above average per 100 pitches seen), curveballs (+1.74) and sliders (+0.79). All of the projection systems expect him to keep finding the gaps and the bleachers often this season:
CHONE: .362 wOBA
ZiPS: .367 wOBA
Oliver: .373 wOBA
From an offensive standpoint, there’s no contest: Napoli is way, way better. While that much is clear cut, measuring the defensive contributions of the two is more difficult. Because of the interdependence of battery mates, it can be difficult to discern a catcher’s responsibility for things like stolen bases, caught stealings, passed balls and wild pitches.
According to Baseball-Reference catcher data (which uses Sean Smith‘s Total Zone), Mathis has been -1.2 runs below average per 135 defensive games. For 2010 CHONE and Total Zone have Mathis as exactly average. Oliver considers Mathis to be about a +5 run defender in a similar amount of playing time.
Napoli has been -7.6 runs below average per 135 defensive games at the big league level. CHONE forecasts -5 run defense in a similar amount of squatting. For 2010, Oliver dings Napoli about 8 runs for his defense.
Let’s call Mathis a .277 wOBA hitter (the average of his three projections), and Napoli a .367 wOBA batter. On a per-plate appearance level, Mathis is about -.0465 runs worse than the average hitter. Napoli is about +0.32 runs better than the average hitter per PA. During their course of their respective careers, Mathis has received 3.25 plate appearances per game, while Napoli has gotten 3.5 per game.
Behind the plate, let’s take the average on Mathis’ two defensive projections, +2.5 runs per 135 defensive games. Napoli rates as a -6.5 run defender per 135 defensive games.
With these numbers in hand, we can get a feel for the number of runs that the Angels will get from the catcher’s spot, depending upon how Scioscia divides the playing time of Mathis and Napoli:
I don’t claim that this is a be-all, end-all look at LA’s catching situation. But even accounting for Mathis being a pretty good catcher and Napoli costing the Angels some runs, the Grand Canyon-sized divide in offensive skill between the two makes Napoli the far better choice to receive the lion’s share of the playing time.