The Baseball Posts: The Very Worst Hitter In the Major Leagues by Adam Bunch

Okay, well, we should start with the fact that being a catcher in Major League Baseball is a stupidly difficult job. For one thing, you spend half your time squatting behind home plate. You are going to be having knee problems for the rest of your life. And you're back there to catch balls being thrown by freakishly talented men who have been collected together from all over the world because they can throw a ball harder and faster than anyone in the history of anything ever. The very slowest pitches thrown in the Majors go about the same speed as a car on a highway. The fastest ones are nearly twice that fast. And those pitches move, too. They seem to curve and dip and dance and slide in midair. The very trickiest and fastest pitches are the ones the hitters can't hit – so they're the ones that, just a few inches later, the catcher is supposed to catch. Every single time. If they bounce in the dirt, he's supposed to block them with his body. If the hitter manages to graze the ball with his bat, the pitch flies toward the catcher in a suddenly new and unexpected direction. No one on the field gets more beaten up, battered and bruised than the catchers do. Even the toughest ones are forced to take about a quarter of the games off, just to rest and heal.

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
Jeff Mathis is quite possibly the worst hitter in all of baseball. Last year, no one came to the plate as many times as he did and had less success. He struck out more times than he got on base. That is not good. His batting average was a mind-bogglingly terrible .174. His OPS (the stat that gives you the quickest and easiest sense of a hitter's total production) was .484. That is just fucking embarrassingly awful. To give you some idea of how just how awful: the league average was .730; Jose Bautista's was 1.056. I mean, .484 is really, really bad even for really bad catchers. The next worst OPS by a catcher who was actually allowed to have that many plate appearances was .641. Jeff Mathis is, in fact, such a terrible hitter than a lot of people think he should probably find something else to do with his life.

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


Anonymous said...

I like how you didn't address any of his numbers this season.
While he is not lighting the world on fire, you do choose to cherry pick his worst year to exaggerate your already ridiculous claim that he is the worst hitter in the league. .223 avg (just below napoli's .226 this year) .696 ops is fairly average for a catcher. In all reality he was meant to be a band-aid backup catcher and he has more than accomplished that in a horrible season of injuries for the jays. How about you calm down with the sky is falling bullshit, we get enough of that from the rest of Toronto's terrible sports media already.

Anonymous said...

Just noticed the tiny date-line for this piece, thought it was recent because of the facebook post. But I stand by my point unnecessary, useless hyperbole.

Adam Bunch said...

Yeah, I totally get why you'd say I'm just hyberloic. But I did think about this before writing the post, and I really do think he's the worst hitter in baseball: both by general reputation and when you look at the stats. Over the three years leading into this one, by OPS by guys with as many plate appearances as he had. (Although, I seem to remember thinking you could make an argument for Chone Figgins.) And what really interests me is that even though he really is terrible hitter, backup catchers can afford to be. Which is why I spent half the post exploring the idea of the extra value that catchers provide beyond their bats. And he certainly has been a bit better this year, with the highest OPS of his career. (Unless you count his three-at-bat first year.) Maybe partly a result of playing for a new team? Though that's totally just a curious thought, not something I have any real evidence for or anything.)

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