Last Thursday, the Miami Marlins reactivated catcher Jeff Mathis from the disabled list after he went down with a broken collarbone on the first game of spring training. Marlins fans have waited in silent dread for the time when Jeff Mathis would arrive on the roster, and it finally happened. One of the most interestingly bad players in baseball today has arrived on one of the least interestingly bad teams in baseball.
The Jeff Mathis experience is an awkward one, and there are few ways to describe it. Mathis is, to put it lightly, one of the worst hitters of this generation. He was a former first-round draft pick (33rd pick in the supplemental round) and a top prospect, having appeared four times on Baseball America's Top 100 and topping out as the 22nd best prospect in 2004. Yet as soon as he arrived in the majors for the Angels around 2006, he was trouble. Mathis is a career .197/.255/.314 hitter. His .252 wOBA is the worst among all hitters with at least 1000 plate appearances since 2000. His competitors are close, but not quite there. Humberto Quintero (.256 wOBA), Paul Janish (.262), and Wilson Valdez (.262) wish they were as terrible at hitting as Jeff Mathis. Mathis also boasts a wRC+ of 50, meaning that he was 50 percent worse than the league average on offense over seven seasons of baseball! The next guy is five percent better than that.
But if Mathis were simply one of the worst hitters of our time, it would not mean much. I mean, no one writes full articles on Humberto Quintero or Wilson Valdez, so clearly Mathis is a special type of bad player. And indeed, he is. Mathis is third in plate appearances among the ten worst hitters since 2000. Only backup infielders John McDonald and Juan Castro beat him out. Mathis has made 435 starts in his career thus far. Humberto Quintero, who had a better batting line (not by much), only managed 360 starts even though he began his career earlier. Paul Bako, the only other backup catcher on the list, started 500 games since 2000, and he had a full-fledged career as a backup by the time Mathis came up for his cup of coffee in 2005.
So Mathis is not just a legendarily poor hitter, the worst of his generation to earn playing time, but he also earned plenty of playing time. And the question of why Mathis earned so much playing time with his old team, the Los Angeles Angels, is a frustrating one for Angels fans. Our SB Nation Angels blog Halos Heaven has already covered his disastrously poor hitting career. The fact that Mathis has caught more games in his Angels career than Mike Napoli, the good hitter and poor defenseman he battled for playing time throughout his career, is a travesty among Angels fans. The debate about whether Mathis was good enough defensively to make up for his awful bat compared to Napoli has been going on for years, and for years that debate has been settled in many different ways. Yet the Angels continued to play Mathis, having given him 281 plate appearances in his final Angels season in 2011.
But the confusion about Jeff Mathis and his ever-expanding career continued. The Angels traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays for Brad Mills, a throwaway lefty of little consequence. And yet Mathis endured, perhaps enthralling the Blue Jays with his top five moments as written by Sam Miller of the OC Register. In fact, not only did Mathis survive the trade as a major leaguer despite all evidence pointing against it, he once again picked up 227 plate appearances with the Jays as their backup catcher. Once more, somehow he convinced them to sign a two-year contract extension with Mathis. He was hitting the best line of his career last season, and that was only a .218/.249/.393 (.277 wOBA) line!
With some sort of combination of defense and sorcery, Jeff Mathis is still a backup catcher in baseball, having arrived here in Miami. He is signed on through 2014. Mathis will take on the role of backup and veteran mentor for Rob Brantly, who is already struggling to hit in his second season in the majors (.240/.312/.313, .281 wOBA). And yet Brantly's struggles leave him just points ahead of Mathis's career season at the plate, and as much as Brantly has struggled on defense as well, there is almost no way Mathis is good enough to make up for his faults at the plate.
And yet, with Mathis being a righty hitter, you may expect to see an honest platoon or something close to that with Brantly in 2013. Mathis seems to have some sort of magical allure that keeps him employed, and the Marlins often fall in love with veteran, gritty players of little remaining skill (see Greg Dobbs and Wes Helms for examples). The Marlins may love Mathis's gritty defense so much that they may reward him with another extension to be their backup, much like Dobbs and Helms before him received.
Thus, the magically bad career of Jeff Mathis continues. It perpetuates without reason or explanation. It continues to grow despite all evidence pointing towards its end. Greg Dobbs may be the "the most interesting man in baseball," but Mathis is truly the "most interesting bad player in baseball."