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Just How Valuable was Mike Matheny in 2005?

September 4, 2009
Mike Matheny's 2005 season was one of the best defensive years for a catcher in recent memory.

Mike Matheny's 2005 season was one of the best defensive years for a catcher in recent memory.

Mike Matheny is a great guy. I remember watching him during Spring Training in 2005—his first and only full season with the Giants, and he spent a good half hour signing autographs up and down the right field line before the game, conversing with the fans and stopping to pose for pictures. Not a single person was overlooked, and you just don’t see that nowadays. He was the polar opposite of the Giants’ previous catcher, A.J. Pierzynski, as he was immensely soft-spoken and was exceedingly well liked by both the fans and the Giants’ pitching staff. We all knew that he wasn’t going to hit all that much—he never broke the .300 mark in weighted on-base average and had never hit above .261 in his career. But he still managed to exceed expectations, as he hit career highs in doubles (34) and home runs (13). He was actually unlucky that year, as his batted ball data suggests he should have hit .288/.337/.450 (.264 GPA), instead of the .242/.295/.406 (.234 GPA) line he put up.

Unlucky or not, Mike put up a line that was worth -12.8 runs below the average hitter, and he was looked at as being an “all defense, no bat” player—which he most certainly was. He was recognized as being one of the better defensive catchers in the game, and he is only one of three catchers in Major League history to catch at least 100 games in a season without committing an error—the others being Buddy Rosar (Philadelphia, 1946) and Charles Johnson (Florida, 1997). Matheny also established an errorless streak for catchers at 252 games, and consecutive chances without an error. While I don’t take errors seriously, as they’re an extremely subjective statistic, it does paint a pretty good picture for us—Mike Matheny was a damn good defensive catcher.

A little while ago I posted an article that introduced an aggregate fielding system based on work by Justin Inaz, Sean Smith and David Pinto in an attempt to estimate a catcher’s defensive value. While the method clearly isn’t perfect, the results seem very much in line with common opinion and can be taken as a relatively accurate means of rating catchers. According to FanGraphs, Mike was a 1.3 Win player in his only season with the Giants—but let’s take a look at what the aggregate metric says:

Component Skill

Runs Saved

Range

10.2

Reputation

-0.5

CS Runs

3.6

Glove

3.2

Errors

2.9

Total Runs Saved

19.4

That’s nearly two wins added by defense alone, making Mike 3.3 Wins Above a Replacement player. A marginal win was worth $3.4 million in 2005, meaning Mike’s monetary value that year was $11.2 million, which is $0.8 MM short of the three-year deal he signed with the Giants. He easily justified his entire contract in the short span of time he was in San Francisco.

Mike also had a reputation for calling a good game, but there is no sufficient way of measuring that. Bill James and John Dewan tried that in the Fielding Bible Volume II, but they worked off of Earned Runs Allowed. Pitchers have little control over what happens with balls hit into play; therefore, catchers have even less control. So I altered their methodology (which is extremely similar to Tom Tango’s With Or Without You) to use defense-independent statistics in order to isolate events solely under the control of the pitcher and the catcher—and I found no correlation from season to season. By using a one-year sample, Mike saved roughly eight runs by his “game calling” abilities, but in previous years he jumped from being “below average” to “average” to “great.” This is something that intuitively seems impossible, at least in my eyes. I remain agnostic towards the concept of “game calling”—I believe that catchers do have an impact on a pitcher’s game, but I am uncertain as to how much of an impact that really is. The catcher may call the pitch, but it is ultimately the pitcher that executes the pitch itself. And I’m even less sold on the idea of rating a catcher based on one year of data, because 162 games (for catchers, this tends to be even less) is too small of a sample size—and the only players you can truly compare him to, his teammates, are going to suffer from small sample size issues as well.

In any case, Matheny’s season is one of the best defensive seasons by a catcher in the past three years, ranking behind only Ivan Rodriguez in 2006 (+23.6) and Jason Kendall in 2008 (+21.5).

Year

With

Without

Difference

2004

1.41

0.4

1.01

2005

3.24

1.3

1.94

2006

0.1

-0.1

0.2

Total

4.75

1.6

3.15

So over the course of three seasons, Matheny is being underrated by a little over three wins, or about 1.05 wins per season. Now, he’s no Adam Everett (who is?), but this is still a markedly noticeable difference. It’s also important to keep in mind that Mike only played 43 defensive games in 2006 and saved 3.6 runs in that span of time—and prorated to the 125 games he played in 2005, he was on pace to save about 10.7 runs (excluding range).

In any case, it’ll always feel like Mike is going to be underrated by both the sabermetric community and the casual fan. And it’s really too bad, because he’s a great guy with a truly golden glove.

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