Our long national nightmare finally appears to be coming to an end. Mike Scioscia has at long last acknowledged the incontrovertible evidence that proves how terrible Jeff Mathis is and stripped him of his starting job, choosing instead to embrace sanity and logic by anointing Hank Conger the Angels’ new primary backstop. Only one real question remains to be answered now… how do we celebrate?
In all seriousness, this move, as unofficial as it still is, is somehow both overdue and a surprise. Mathis has been the bane of Angel fans’ existence for years now. Almost no fan could put forth a rational explanation for why Mathis continued to get so much playing time when the Angels had Mike Napoli standing idly by. But coming into this season, Napoli had been jettisoned and we all slowly began to make our peace, begrudgingly so, with the fact that we would probably be seeing even more Mathis, and his Mendozian bat, than ever.
For as much disdain as the fans harbored for the offensively-challenged catcher, Mike Scioscia seemed to carry just as much respect for Mathis’ defensive prowess. For that reason alone, Mathis has been able to carve out a role for himself despite all of his other failings and it seemed his defensive superiority was also going to prevent him from being replaced by top prospect Hank Conger, a player that was known to have real offensive skills but was supposed to be a work in progress behind the plate. We didn’t like the arrangement, but it seemed as inevitable as death and taxes. Or at least that is what we all thought.
Defense. Defense. Defense. Those have always been Mike Scioscia’s top priorities when it comes to selecting his starting catcher. Nothing will ever change his mind in that regard. So how did Mathis, a man that Sosh has frequently lauded as one of the top backstops in the game, lose his grip on the starting gig almost overnight?
What series of events finally caused Scioscia to lose his man-crush on Mathis?
The problem, it seems, is that Jeff Mathis just doesn’t have “it” on defense anymore. One could even argue that he never really did, and advanced metrics have certainly attempted to make that argument. As sudden as this decision may seem, the seeds for it were sown last season. By all measures and accounts, Jeff Mathis had a lousy season with the glove in 2010. He and Scioscia both freely admit this. But it was generally assumed that his struggles were an aberration. After all, he was working his way back from a broken wrist. It was a pretty safe assumption that Scioscia would give him a free pass for that season in light of the circumstances.
This year, however, Mathis has no excuse to save him. While his catcher’s ERA might be a sparkly 2.84 (and how could it not be with how well the Angels have pitched of late?), he is faltering in other areas. In just seven starts behind the plate, Mathis has already permitted one passed ball and five wild pitches. Now, wild pitches are usually blamed on the pitcher, but I can think of at least two different pitches where Mathis very easily could’ve prevented the ball from getting away had his defensive fundamentals been more sound. And that is no small sample size fluke either. In his 67 starts last year, Mathis permitted a staggering 39 wild pitches, surpassing his career-high by thirteen. To put it in more of a frame of reference, consider that Mathis allowed just 21 wild pitches in 90 starts back n 2008. Something just isn’t working for him now.
He’s also struggled throwing out baserunners, as we all know far too well in the wake of the embarrassing 0-for-6 effort against Kansas City early in the season. He has now caught just three of fourteen potential basestealers. Again, not all his fault, but it still isn’t a good number, especially when he caught just 20% of basestealers last season. But what is more concerning is that opposing teams aren’t even scared to run against him now. 14 steal attempts in seven starts doesn’t exactly suggest an intimidation factor being in play.
Whatever the reason is, be it physical, mental or both, Mathis just isn’t a quality catcher right now. In other words, he now brings nothing positive to the table, which is exactly why Scioscia had to make this move.
The benefactor of this re-shuffling of the depth chart is none other than Hank Conger. Not to take anything away from the kid, but this move wasn’t made because he earned it so much as Mathis not earning it. Let’s not forget that Conger had a very quiet spring and was ticketed to return to the minors this year before an injury to Joel Pineiro created an unexpected spot on the roster for Hank to fill. To his credit, Conger has made the most of the opportunity, using his sporadic playing time to prove to Scioscia that his defense isn’t as raw as we were lead to believe. He may not be winning a Gold Glove anytime soon, but he is arguably better than Mathis right now and that is all it really took to convince Sosh to make the move.
What remains to be seen is just how permanent this move is. If Conger continues to hold his own defensively and be anything other than an offensive liability, it should be his job to lose. But what if his defense does start to slip, especially since Conger, who has had a fair amount of health issues in the minors, can’t handle the grind of catching a majority of the games? What if Mathis gets his act together and regains Scioscia’s trust? Does Manager Mike’s loyalty to Mathis run deep enough for him to put Mathis back at top of the depth chart? Only time will tell.