I've seen a sporadic amount of chatter here over the offseason to the effect that Jeff Mathis is likely to hit passably well next year given that he mashed in the postseason. The snarky response to that might be along the lines of: "Two words: Brian Doyle."
But small sample sizes aside, I actually have some sympathy with the Kool-aid drinkers here, because for me Mathis is one of those guys who just looks like he should hit. Great body, very athletic, seems to have a very efficient swing (to my naked, un-scoutworthy eye), and when he's on, as in last year's playoffs, he seems like a threat every time up to hit a double in the gap.
So I thought it'd be useful to look at players his age throughout history who have performed about as poorly as Mathis has thus far given roughly the same opportunity, and see if any of them turned the corner and eventually learned how to hit. Using Baseball Reference's Play Index, I created a chart of players up through their age-26 seasons who had league/park-adjusted OPS's of between 46 and 66 (Mathis through his age-26 season stands at 56), and with between 661 and 1061 plate appearances (Mathis has 861). Remember that an adjusted OPS (or, as it's known, OPS+) of 100 is exactly league-average every year, so even 66 is seriously brutal. For instance, only two Major League players who qualified for the batting title last year had OPS+s of lower than 66: Yuniesky Betancourt, with 65 (.245/.274/.351) and Emilio Bonifacio with 61 (.252/.303/.308).
My chart, whose url I can't seem to save normally, turned up 90 players not named Jeff Mathis, of which 14 either never made it to 26 (hello, Danny Ainge!), or are still active and haven't gotten that old yet (such as former Angel farmhand Alexi Casilla), or bugged out to a foreign league (hidy-ho, Benji Gil!), or otherwise didn't play Major League ball at league-age 26. So let's disregard them.
Who were the 76 other guys? Here's a sobering thought for you: Two were pitchers (and both made the Hall of Fame, too: Christy Mathewson and Catfish Hunter). That leaves 74 position players, of which, unsurprisingly, 15 were catchers, including former Angel brutalities Jorge Fabregas, Matt Walbeck and Terry Humphrey (for my fellow fogeys in the audience, gag on this: the only reason Tom Egan isn't on this list is because he hit too well).
So how did the 74 position players hit from age 27 onward? Considering that age 26-29 is widely considered to be the offensive prime, their combined record is just brutal:
* 11 never played another inning (these were mostly outfielders and third basemen, with some old-timey shortstops with names like Dud Lee).
* 11 played just one more year (including Yes We Can shortstop Jim Anderson, LBC OG Ed Crosby, and future real moneyball manager Ron Gardenhire).
* 9 played just two more years
* 10 others warmed benches for a bit longer, but compiled fewer than 600 at bats before bowing out.
So that's 41 of 74, or well over the median Mathis comp, who washed out of baseball because they couldn't hit.
But at least the remaining 33 could swing the bat, right? Nope! Almost two-thirds, 21 in all, racked up OPS+s from age 27 onward of lower than 80. You know how B.J. Upton stank up the joint last year, hitting just .241/.313/.373? That's better than any of these guys. Here's a quick list, ranked by OPS+, with the other numbers being seasons played and number of ABs from age 27 to retirement:
79 8 2808 Eddie Kasko SS/3B
76 10 2487 Dick Schofield, Sr SS
74 9 3165 Frank O'Rourke SS/IF
74 11 2118 Buck Martinez C
74 7 1774 Larry Milbourne 2B
74 7 1598 Rocky Bridges SS/IF
73 7 2023 George Strickland SS
72 4 1296 Mario Guerrero SS
70 7 1231 Tomas Perez IF
67 9 3025 Mike Matheny C
67 6 768 Rob Picciolo SS
65 4 899 Hector Torres SS
63 5 1227 Darrel Chaney SS
62 4 1259 Jerry Kindall 2B
60 7 1133 Matt Walbeck C
60 5 605 Andy Allanson C
58 8 3193 Doug Flynn 2B
57 4 897 Billy Hunter SS
53 6 1219 Jorge Fabregas C
42 10 1458 Rafael Belliard SS
40 6 723 Roxy Walters C
Kasko was a decent player for the Reds and Astros from ages 28-32, making an All-Star team, drawing a single MVP vote, cranking up the OPS+ all the way to 101 one year, and playing good defense. Dick Schofield's dad finally moved out of Dick Groat's shadow at age 28 and celebrated by hitting .246 for a couple of years before falling off a cliff. George Strickland had one good year (.284 at age 27) and several bad, ditto for Frank O'Rourke (.293 with 40 doubles at age 30), Buck Martinez was a useful minor partner in a platoon with Ernie Whitt from ages 32-34, and I think I've run out of any good things to say about these 21 players' collected offensive contributions. As a group, they stunk. Though I wish there more guys nowadays with names like Roxy Walters.
So! That leaves us with just 12 Mathis comps out of 74 who did not objectively reek on offense. Two of these finalists, first basemen Rocky Nelson and David McCarty, basically each had two half-seasons of non-sucking in their 30s, and put up their non-horrible, post-age-27 OPS+s (103 and 90, respectively) in less than 800 ABs total. So they're not of much use. Neither is future Hall of Fame manager Bill McKechnie, who only ever really hit in the Federal League. So let's boil this all down to a magic nine players. Here are the 11% of Jeff Mathis' offensive comps who made something of themselves offensively when they grew up:
98 6 1188 Eli Marrero C/OF
96 3 453 Ramon Santiago SS
93 5 1200 Willie Harris OF/2B
92 6 2983 Brandon Inge 3B/C
92 6 1755 Danny Bautista RF
89 9 2547 Marlon Anderson 2B
86 11 3000 George Gibson C
85 13 5298 Mark McLemore 2B/OF
85 10 3025 Birdie Tebbetts C
My, what an interesting list this is! Seven of the nine were active as recently as 2004, three still are, and the other two were catchers born before World War I. I don't have any fancy theories about any of that. Harris, Marlon Anderson and Mark McLemore are basically the same player -- second basemen who couldn't quite play second base, hyped youngsters who failed high-profile starting jobs, yet guys who could draw a walk, steal a bag, hit a gapper, and pick up an outfielder's glove. Gibson and Tebbetts were both known for their smarts.
But the guys who intrigue me most are Eli Marrero and Brandon Inge. Both, like Mathis (only moreso) were super-athletic catchers; in fact, athletic enough that they were moved off the position and still thrived. Both, like Mathis (and perhaps moreso) were touted for their baseball intelligence, and frequently praised by their managers. And of the original list of 91 players, you'd be hard-pressed to find any other two guys whose stat lines so closely resemble that of Mike Napoli's best pal through age 26:
NM G AB R H 2B HR RB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS+
JM 265 749 95 150 30 20 99 74 227 .200 .277 .320 56
BI 278 840 72 166 41 15 69 57 221 .198 .254 .314 55
EM 267 718 85 157 36 17 78 57 127 .219 .277 .348 59
Some power, some walks, and just crap-all for batting average. If you sort the 91 players in the Mathis comp list by home runs, Mathis is tied for 2nd with Danny Bautista (despite ranking just 43rd in ABs), Marrero is tied for 4th, and Inge is tied for 6th. Mathis and Inge are 3rd and 4th in strikeouts; 86th and 89th in batting average. As shown above, most of the players on the list crapped out, but one of the best correlations for future success was Isolated Power: Danny Bautista ranked 2nd among the age-26 crew with an ISO of .129, Marrero was 3rd with .127, Mathis is 4th with .120, and Inge was 6th with .116. Mathis was also 12th in walks.
Before we go declaring Jeff Mathis to be the next Eli Marrero, let's remember three things: 1) Marrero really was an outstanding athlete; he stole 26 bases in 30 attempts his first few years. 2) An OPS+ of 98 is no great shakes; we're talking David Delluci territory here. Marrero's final six seasons were a damn sight better than his first four, but he still hit just .258/.318/.449. And 3) In a Mathis comp list of 90 other players, among those who had even 700 ABs from age 27 on Marrero's 98 OPS+ was the very best. Number 1, out of 90. The median player washed out, the much-better-than-average hitter was some hitless wonder like Mike Matheny, and even the best was mediocre.
So there you have it. Those of you who think Mathis is going to crank it up to .250 with some walks and decent power, know that when comparing him to similar hitters with similar numbers throughout history, such a result would represent the single-digit percentile of frequency. That's why I, too, believe it will happen.
Happy New Year!