JESSICA BADER: The rise of defensive metrics like UZR and Plus/Minus has helped immensely in clearly sorting out how much value position players have in the field. However, it is still difficult to quantify a catcher’s defensive contributions, so the old cliches about calling a good game and how a catcher looks back there still carry a lot of weight. Perhaps the most frustrating example of this is in Anaheim, where the underappreciated Mike Napoli dons the tools of ignorance.
Napoli is a career .256/.356/.494 hitter, good for a 121 OPS+ – good numbers for any hitter, excellent ones for a catcher. Yet this has not been enough to secure him the starting job over a vastly inferior hitter. Before Jeff Mathis hit the DL with a broken wrist last month, the career .206/.280/.328 (59 OPS+) hitter had started behind the plate in 10 of the Angels’ first 14 games. While Mathis was off to a hot start, I don’t think it fully explains Mike Scioscia’s decision to start him the vast majority of the time – after all, Mathis caught 94 games in 2008 despite hitting just .194/.275/.318 while Napoli hit .273/.374/.586 that season while catching just 75 games.
The obvious argument here in favor of Mathis would have to be that he is an excellent defender and Napoli a terrible one in order to overcome the offensive gap that is so heavily in Napoli’s favor. Yet what we know from traditional measures of catcher defense does little to support that argument. In 2,981 innings behind the plate, Napoli has thrown out 24% of opposing baserunners while allowing 110 wild pitches and 18 passed balls (or one of either of these events about once every 23 innings). In 2,144 1/3 innings, Mathis has thrown out 23% of opposing baserunners while allowing 56 wild pitches and 15 passed balls (or about one every 30 innings). Both catchers seem to have equivalent throwing arms, and while Mathis appears to be a bit better at blocking pitches in the dirt, his tendency to allow fewer wild pitches doesn’t come close to Napoli’s nearly 250-point advantage in career OPS.
Perhaps the Angels still underrate the offensive capabilities of player like Napoli because of his underwhelming batting average. Perhaps Mike Scioscia has decided that Mathis does a better job of handling the pitching staff, whatever that may entail for the Angels. In any event, as someone whose baseball formative years were spent rooting for her team’s power-hitting catchers (yes, I am willing to admit that Todd Hundley was my favorite player when I was 11) and later gnashing her teeth over the “contributions” of Paul LoDuca and Brian Schneider, not to mention a Napoli owner in one of her fantasy leagues, I can’t say I like the consequences of whatever the correct explanation turns out to be.
Even good, well-run teams like the Angels are guilty of it. So despite all the talk about how they favor a catch-and-throw guy like Mathis behind the plate, Napoli still got more than 400 plate appearances last year. Even without the Mathis injury, he would have probably reached that level again this year so long as his bat continued to cover up any defensive deficiencies the Angels either perceive or imagine.
That’s probably a fair amount of work for the better half of a catching tandem. It’s certainly a fair question to ask if a catcher can remain very effective at the plate if they log too many innings behind it. Even Joe Mauer and Brian McCann — the best hitting catchers in baseball — aren’t being asked to lift their teams’ offenses from a crouched position much more often than Napoli. Mauer gets a healthy dose of plate appearances as a DH, and McCann only plays around 135 games.
Napoli is a good hitter, but he’s not in Mauer or McCann’s class. At this point it’s fair to say he’s better that Mitch Meluskey, but still has a long way to go before he’s Mickey Tettleton.