Healthy Mathis seeks rebound in 2011

Healthy Mathis seeks rebound in 2011

ANAHEIM -- There are a lot of candidates in the wake of the franchise's first losing season since 2003, but Angels fans, bloggers and commentators of various stripes appear to have fixed on catcher Jeff Mathis as the primary target of their offseason wrath.

The general tone seems to go something like this: "Get rid of him. Send him away, anywhere. He can't hit. He can't throw. What good is he?"

And then there are those who really don't like the guy.

Mathis, as honest as they come, would admit that 2010 was nothing like he anticipated when he arrived for Spring Training having won a $1.3 million arbitration case. Coming off an epic postseason performance against the Red Sox and Yankees, helping carry the Angels to within two wins of a World Series, he was ready to finally establish that he's a top-tier catcher.

After a solid spring, focusing on a loading mechanism designed to keep him from getting out in front of his body, Mathis came out of the chute blazing.

In his first plate appearance of the season, he sustained the momentum from those five doubles, eight hits, .583 average and 1.000 slugging mark in 15 at-bats against Boston and New York.

Facing Twins right-hander Scott Baker in the second inning at Angel Stadium on Opening Day, Mathis told himself to "just be ready to hit." Baker put a fastball in a place he liked, and Mathis unloaded. His line drive just kept carrying, over the wall in center field.

"That's all you're looking for in batting practice, the cage, wherever you hit -- a line drive," Mathis said. "Off the bat, I was thinking it was in the gap, so I took off and kept going."

Mathis eased up rounding first, having gone deep on the first pitch he'd seen. Nice way to start a season.

"It was awesome," Mathis said. "First at-bat, I was a little fired up with the adrenaline. I got a pitch I could drive, and I put a good swing on it.

"I've worked hard getting my swing right. I'm trying to keep myself back in a loaded position, letting the ball travel. In the past, I was so aggressive going at the ball that I was taking myself away and not allowing myself to see it travel. I feel like I'm seeing the ball much better. The big key for me is controlled aggression."

Mathis' blast gave Jered Weaver a 3-2 lead, and the Angels prevailed, 4-3.

"Jeff showed the caliber of player he can be," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said in the afterglow. "He wants to be that Gold Glove force behind the plate along with being a guy who can hit, with exceptional bat speed."

Ah, such promise.

Then, just two weeks later, such pain.

A foul tip caught Mathis squarely on his right hand above the thumb, fracturing his wrist. He would come back, but he would not be close to the player he was over those first 10 games of the season, when he batted .324 and played defense at an All-Star level.

"Just one of those bad breaks," Mathis said, trying to be philosophical. "It's a hazard for catchers. Those things happen."

He took a 10-game hitting streak to the disabled list and didn't return to action until June 18, extending the streak by three games before it all left him -- the stroke, the impressive numbers, the confidence. He fought himself the rest of the season.

Mathis batted .143 in June, .226 in July, .098 in August and .205 in the final month. He finished at .195, leaving his career average at .199.

At 27, he was widely judged a flop. All those inflamed fans and bloggers and commentators were surprised that the Angels offered him a contract for 2011 rather than just letting him go away as a free agent.

Obviously, they see things in Mathis that others can't.

"Jeff is a terrific defensive player," Scioscia said. "He struggled when he came back from the injury, defensively and offensively. But I know what he can do. He just needs to play to his potential. He can hit much better than he's shown."

Despite his abysmal 2010, Mathis has been the eighth-most effective defensive receiver in the Majors over the past three seasons. That is the calculation of noted numbers cruncher John Dewan in Bill James' 2011 Handbook.

Mathis' throwing was off in 2010, in part because of lingering issues with the hand and in part because of poor mechanics. But he still handled the pitching staff capably, blocked pitches in the dirt and handled bunts and slow rollers as well as anyone in the game.

The staff's ERA in Mathis' 68 appearances, 62 as a starter, was 3.67. Overall, for the season, the club's ERA was 4.04. In his career, Angels pitchers have a 3.89 ERA with Mathis calling and handling the pitches.

Angels pitchers had a 5.11 ERA with Mike Napoli behind the plate in 2010. For his career, the staff ERA is 4.34.

Napoli has earned slightly more playing time at catcher than Mathis primarily because of the threat Mike brings with his booming bat.

Napoli and Mathis, best buddies, often have joked that if you combined their talents, you'd have Johnny Bench. Until 2010, they were a successful duo, each contributing handsomely to teams that won 94, 100 and 97 games in consecutive seasons.

You don't win that many games -- and three straight division titles -- with bums behind the plate.

Mathis, a high school football star in Florida, is an exceptional athlete who has shown he doesn't shy away from challenges. In 20 career postseason at-bats, he is batting .450 with a .700 slugging percentage.

Unlike so many of their disillusioned fans, the Angels think the guy can play.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.