And that's only part of the job. Catching is also an intellectual challenge. It's the catcher who decides which pitches the pitcher should throw – whether a given moment calls for a curveball or a fastball, inside or outside, high or low. So he needs to know the strengths and weaknesses and habits and tendencies of every hitter on the opposing team, and every pitcher on his own team. And he has to account for the fact that the other team is constantly doing the same thing: it's a never-ending mental arms race as the catcher and his pitchers try to figure out the other team's hitters, and the other team's hitters try to figure out the catcher and his pitchers, all of them constantly evolving and making adjustments, trying to stay one step ahead. Meanwhile, every time there's speedy runner on base, that runner is trying to steal the next base, and the catcher has to keep him in mind, too. So catchers, even more than other position players, need to spend countless hours studying video tape, analyzing scouting reports and discussing strategy with his team's coaches and the pitchers on his staff.
All of this means that when a team is looking for a catcher, they are less worried about how well he can hit than they would be if he played another position. (Other, of course, than pitcher.) It's hard enough to find someone who can catch at all, never mind them being an excellent hitter on top of it. And so, the average catcher is not as good a hitter as your average shortstop or outfielder or first baseman.
Exhibit A: Jeff Mathis.
|Please let me get a hit|
Now, they do say Mathis is a good catcher when it comes to defense. His pitchers tend to give up fewer runs with him catching than when they're being caught by other people. (Though he doesn't do particularly well at not making errors, or at throwing guys out when they try to steal a base.) And up until this point he has been lucky enough to play his entire career for the Los Angeles Angels, who just happen to be managed by Mike Scioscia, who used to be a catcher himself. He values that defense waaaaaaaaay more than other people would. So he has played Mathis waaaaaaaaay more often than other people would.
It's been driving Angles fans crazy for years. The Angels blog Halos Heaven calls Mathis "the worst player in their history". The Halo Is Lit says he's just plain "bad at baseball". And when True Gritch wanted to sum up his accomplishments, they posted a video of a cricket chirping. Mathis is literally a laughing stock: even Jay Leno devoted one of his terrible opening monologues to telling terrible jokes about him. (Both O.J. Simpson and the Kardashians came up. Plus, he took a shot at Conan. Stay classy, Jay.)
People got even more annoyed last year when the Angels traded away one of their other catchers, Mike Napoli, to the Blue Jays because Mathis was taking up all of Napoli's playing time. The Jays then traded Napoli to the Angels' biggest rival, the Texas Rangers, where he had an MVP-calibre season and led them all the way to the World Series. (The player the Angels got back in that trade? Vernon Wells, another candidate for worst hitter in the Majors, who is also, sadly, one of highest paid players in the Majors. It was a stupefyingly stupid trade for L.A.)
But this off-season, finally, after years of frustration, the prayers of Angels fans have finally been answered. Jeff Mathis was traded away. To your Toronto Blue Jays.
The idea, apparently, is that he'll be able to help the Jays' young starting catcher, J.P. Arencibia, learn the defensive side of the game. And also that they couldn't get anybody better. Even still, it's probably the most head-scratching decision Toronto's excellent General Manager, Alex Anthopoulos, has made so far.
Back-up catchers usually get to play on Saturday afternoons, because the starting catcher is still tired and worn out from Friday night's game. This year, you might want to go on Sunday instead.
The Baseball Posts are series of posts about, um, well, baseball. You'll find them all here. Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.