Premium Defense: A New Punchline For Last Year's Joke

You've seen this joke before too. Like Super Nintendo, it just never gets old.

I'm tired of picking on Jeff Mathis. I've been typecasted. I'm the lousy comedian with one famous routine and no imagination. Even the shortest arms can reach the lowest fruit, and it's hard to imagine fruit lying any lower than Mathis's career batting average. I need some new material. I'm so done with this.

But I'll make an exception. Just this once. Shoddy journalism is always worthy of excoriation, especially clothed in the authority of the Angels' official website. I've already warmed up after grading hundreds of poorly written, poorly argued essays and exams last week. Vacation is coming up, and the Angels have apparently taken vacation early, so let's have some fun dropping the hammer. I've got my red pen ready, and I'm docking points for unsubstantiated claims.

Here is Lyle Spencer's most recent serenade to our favorite premium catcher.

Healthy Mathis seeks rebound in 2011

By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com

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.

All you fans and bloggers with passionate but ultimately misguided thoughts and opinions, listen up! It's time for the Voice of Experience to set you straight.

Seriously, now that news outlets are becoming blogs in order to survive, invoking "blogger" as a metonym for public hysteria just isn't tenable any longer. This is standard operating procedure for Murray Chass, but Lyle Spencer, who maintains a blog that even calls itself a blog, should know better

Oh, I get it now. The old-fashioned dateline makes this "reporting" instead of "some dude's opinion."

Fine.

BROOKHAVEN -- "Primary target" is such a harsh term, but Lyle is right about there being a lot of candidates for our offseason wrath:

Awful Player     WAR

Brandon Wood -1.8
Scott Kazmir -0.8
Jeff Mathis -0.6
Robb Quinlan -0.5
Kevin Frandsen -0.4
Scot Shields -0.4
Brian Stokes -0.4
Michael Ryan -0.2
Paul McAnulty -0.2
Cory Aldridge -0.2
Mark Trumbo -0.2
Andrew Romine -0.2
----
-9.5

This collection of stiffs cost the Angels somewhere in the vicinity of nine wins relative to the threshold of satisfactory major-league performance. The Angels lost their division by a margin of ten games. That near coincidence makes me a little uncomfortable.

Look through the list again. Notice any patterns among the players? Besides the awfulness, of course.

That's right, everyone belongs to the following category:

  • Players who are not eligible for salary arbitration.

Everyone except for Jeff Mathis, that is.

Aldridge, Frandsen, McAnulty, Quinlan, Ryan, and Stokes have all been shown the door. Scot Shields preserved his dignity by showing it to himself. Romine and Trumbo are almost certainly headed for Salt Lake City. The Angels probably wish Scott Kazmir's contract would let them send him along. And the axe will probably fall on Brandon Wood within days of an Adrian Beltre acquisition (please God, please God, please).

So why does Jeff Mathis deserve a roster spot, to say nothing of a raise, for actively hurting the team?

I'm dying to find out.

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?"

That's right. He cannot hit, and he cannot throw. Those are documented facts. Unfortunately, those are the two most important skills for a major-league catcher.

So it's Lyle Spencer's responsibility to answer the question: "What good is he?"

You have 872 words remaining.

Go.

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

Look, I'm sure Jeff Mathis: Human Being is a great guy. If he called me tonight and wanted to hang out, I'd go. Sounds like it could be a really wild time.

But Jeff Mathis: Major League Catcher is bad at what he does. For me, this is nothing personal. Can Lyle claim the same?

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.

If Jeff Mathis went around calling .497 an acceptable OPS for a non-pitcher, then I would be worried about a lot more than his honesty.

Anyways, last time I checked, honesty was not a baseball skill.

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.

Okay, try to stifle your laughter at this one.

Top-Tier Catcher    WAR     OPS+    G

Joe Mauer 38.7 136 836
Victor Martinez 25.2 121 1004
Brian McCann 18.1 122 754
Russell Martin 12.7 101 667
Mike Napoli 11.0 112 506
...
Like a million other catchers
...
Jeff Mathis -2.3 53 333

Jeff Mathis (.576 career OPS) is as likely to establish himself as top-tier catcher as Koyie Hill (.578 career OPS).

But he had an epic postseason! Let's break down the epicness.

Jeff came to the plate four times against Boston. He had an epic bunt and an epic lead-off single. He also had two epic strikeouts. Nothing to see here.

He did have 7 epic hits in 12 epic at-bats against the Yankees, featuring an epic walk-off double off Alfredo Aceves (who was recently non-tendered). That was his only postseason RBI. But it was pretty epic.

People only took notice because, well, it was Jeff frickin' Mathis. It was also 12 frickin' ABs. If we're going to go drawing conclusions based on samples much closer to 0 than 100, how about Mathis's 1-for-5 in the 2007 and 2008 postseasons?

That's not too far from his .199 career average in 954 non-cherry-picked career AB.

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.

Jeff Mathis hit .220 / .292 / .366 in 17 games last spring. Assuming Spring Training numbers mean anything (which they don't), his performance was "solid" in the sense of "solid waste." Even against ankle-biter pitching, he was out-hit by Bobby Wilson and, of course, Mike Napoli, who slugged .760 in the desert air.

But I'm interesting in this "loading mechanism." Is it like one of these?

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.

Good thing Spring Training doesn't count, or Jeff would have totally lost all that momentum.

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."

As opposed to telling himself, maybe, "let's try to hit facing the umpire this time, just to see what happens."

Baker put a fastball in a place he liked, and Mathis unloaded. His line drive just kept carrying, over the wall in center field.

I like this story. I'd tell it to my kids. It teaches three valuable lessons:

  1. Pick a good pitch to hit.
  2. Make contact.
  3. Hit the ball on a line.

Unfortunately, if you wrote a story for every one of Mathis's 1089 career plate appearances, only 96 of them would go like this one. I didn't even add a possible fourth valuable lesson: Hit a home run. Then we'd be down to 23 stories.

Which reminds me, the 23rd James Bond film will be released in 2012. Coincidence?

Yeah, it is.

"That's all you're looking for in batting practice, the cage, wherever you hit -- a line drive," Mathis said.

True statement. On the whole, batters hit about .730 on line drives and .230 on everything else they put in play. The best hitters hit lots of line drives.

It's just a shame Mathis is not good at it. Like, at all. His 13.4% career line-drive rate is the lowest on record, and the data goes back to 2002. He's 586th out of 586 players who qualify with over 750 PA.

The article continues with more baseball clichés (drink a shot every time someone "gets a pitch to drive" and "puts a good swing on it") and some funny talk about "controlled aggression," like Mathis's major flaw is being too good at killing baseballs...

Let's see, here's a good one:

"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."

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a pirate.

Just for fun, I looked up the boxscore of the night in question. Jeff went 1-for-4 with a home run, two pop-ups, and an inning-ending whiff when Howie Kendrick was standing on second base. He also let Delmon Young rip off a bag. This is the same Delmon Young who attempted to steal just eight other bases last season, then got caught four of those times.

That solo homer is starting to look like a cherry picked from an empty tree.

Ah, such promise.

Ah, such a refreshing can of Pepsi...

Oh, sorry, didn't see you there.

Um...promise, yes. Promise is what Jeff Mathis had the last time he really looked like a hitter, which was 2003. AA was the highest level he played in that year. He did have one more respectable season at AAA in 2005, though his power numbers were rather mundane by PCL standards (Koyie Hill hit the PCL just as well the year before).

Then his OPS depreciated like a toxic asset. After hitting just .244 in his third tour of the PCL in 2007, is anyone really surprised that he never fulfilled his promise in the big leagues?

Then, just two weeks later, such pain.

The assignment was to write an 872-word essay in response to the question: "What good is Jeff Mathis?" We're 386 words in, and so far we've got:

  1. Mathis once had 7 hits in 12 at-bats.
  2. Hey guys, I hit a home run.
  3. Ow!

Time to pick up the pace.

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.

He was probably exactly the same player, actually.

So he started 2010 with a lucky 11-for-34. The probability of turning up 11 hits out of 34 samples from the career record of a .200 hitter, taken totally at random, is 6.2%. It's a slight chance, but certainly not impossible.

There's actually a 32% chance at least one of his six seasons would have started with an 11-for-34 streak.

He's even done it before.

Remember 2008? Mathis started that season with a 12-for-34 streak. Three of those hits were home runs too.

He hit .172 the rest of the season. There's no injury to blame. Just regression to the mean. His season average, .194, was just three points different from his career average up to that point.

As for the "All-Star level" defense in question, Mathis went 0-for-4 on attempted base thefts during the 10 games before he hit the disabled list. He did pick Nick Punto off of second, though. Stay on the bag, Nick.

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.

Apparently, the broken wrist didn't even catch up with him until three games after he returned to the active roster. But after that, it was all totally the injury's fault. Honest.

Usually, players who are disabled stay on the disabled list. That's why it's called the disabled list. It's a list for players who are disabled.

But Mathis went 29-for-171 the rest of the season, which is a totally, totally normal occurrence for a .200 career hitter. The odds are 4:1.

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.

Which is exactly one point lower than it was when he started the season.

Whatever, Mathis's batting average is a red herring anyways. He didn't even record the worst single-season average of his career in 2010.

However, his isolated power (SLG - AVG) dropped 15% from 2009. Then again, it's also fallen at least 12% between every season since 2007. So, um, I guess that's normal too.

The change in his plate discipline was not. Mathis actually walked 8.4% of the time in 2007-2009. He did it just 2.8% of the time in 2010.

The reason is pretty obvious. He swung at 37.2% of all pitches he saw outside the strike zone, missing more than half of them. Prior to last season, he only chased about 28% of the time.

Only a constant swinging motion could ease that aching wrist.

At 27, he was widely judged a flop.

Well, there's this person.

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.

Inflamed bloggers again! Lyle must have known about my hemorrhoids.

Yes, I suppose we were inflamed. And surprised. Considering that the Angels already have one of the best hitting catchers of the last five years under contract for next season. And a prospective defensive catcher, who costs nothing, and might actually not suck. And a promising young switch-hitting catcher at the cusp of major-league readiness. And a multitude of solid defenders with tolerable bats available on the open market.

They didn't even have to let him go away. A non-tender could have also resulted in a zero-liability minor-league deal.

We would like to know why the Angels instead chose to commit upwards of $2 million to the worst hitter in modern history with no measurable defensive ability to speak of.

When you stop to think about it, is that really so inflammatory?

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

Sometimes only a mother's love can see the true worth beneath a rough exterior. But the question remains: Are the Angels right to see things in Mathis that no one else can?

 Mike Scioscia is not Jeff's mother. The decision to retain Mathis needs to be justified.

"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."

A non-answer is not what I had in mind. I count one demonstrably false assertion, one cop-out, one appeal to ineffable insight, and two empty clichés.

Mike Scioscia spins quite a vicious circle here. How do you know that Mathis can play better than he's shown when he's never, you know, shown it?

I mean, one year ago, Matt Welch pointed out that Mathis's "potential" was playing the opposite side of the squash court from historical precedent. After last season, even historical precedent is out the window.

More evidence, please.

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.

Well this is embarrassing.

Look at me caught with my pants down. And by that I mean, without a copy of the Bill James Handbook 2011.

Did Lyle Spencer really just do that? Did he really just drop an advanced statistical metric without explanation, then ask me to believe it based solely on the statistician's authority?

Oh, the irony.

I don't actually know what measurement Spencer is referencing here, or if he's even interpreted it correctly. Recent editions of the Bill James Handbook haven't interested me enough to warrant purchase. He probably means Defensive Runs Saved, which is also available on Baseball Reference.

Mathis actually has a +12 DRS (above average) over the last three seasons. For a guy who can't throw and can't keep the ball in front of him any better than Mike Napoli, that figure seems awfully high. What's up?

John Dewan actually factors Catcher ERA into his DRS calculations for catchers. I haven't found an explanation of his reasoning (any suggestions?), but it certainly puts him in the minority among sabermetricians. CERA has generally been filed in the busted-myth category since Keith Woolner's study one decade ago.

However, Sean Smith tells me that he has found evidence linking CERA and skill, although I'm waiting on my copy of the article to arrive. Nevertheless, I hear that Jeff Mathis only holds an advantage of about 10 runs over Mike Napoli per season. Not many, when you remember that Napoli has hit between 11 and 24 home runs more than Jeff Mathis in every season.

All of this explains why DRS is so much more optimistic about Mathis's defensive value than Sean Smith's own Total Zone system, which puts him at 3 runs below average over the same time period. Fangraphs doesn't bother with the CERA component of DRS, and similarly grades Mathis with a -2.

And then there's this. So the statistics are not in agreement here.

But in the absence of certainty, I'll cede all statistical assumptions to Lyle Spencer. My argument doesn't need them anyways.

Let's assume Mathis has saved 12 runs more than the average catcher over the last three seasons, and that that is the 8th best total during that period. Does that make him a good baseball player?

The problem is that Mathis is by far the worst hitting regular catcher in baseball. He'd have to place a lot better than 8th in the defensive standings to make up for the lack of offense.

If you credit Mathis for 15 more runs over 2007-2009 (the difference between DRS and TZ), you'll come up with 1.0 wins above replacement. That's an average of 0.3 WAR per season, the very definition of replacement-level performance. Keep in mind, we're making the most optimistic assumptions here.

At least he didn't hurt the team, right?

Sorry, but Jeff Mathis also took playing time away from Mike Napoli. Based on his aggregate performance, Napoli would have produced about 6 WAR in the time it took Mathis to generate just one. While Napoli obviously couldn't have played every single day (he was injured for part of 2008), he could have played a lot more than he did.

In other words, even if you go all starry-eyed over CERA, Jeff Mathis has still cost the Angels a handful of wins since 2008. In all fairness, the debt should probably be charged to Mike Scioscia.

So to sum all of this up, one number can't tell you everything. Where have I heard that before?

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.

There's no defense premium enough to block the logical gap here: "in part because of poor mechanics." So, Mathis's throwing was off in part because he is bad at throwing. How big is this part? Is it even a new part?

Let's play a game. I'll write down Mathis's seasonal fielding statistics. Just dumb, non-sabermetric fielding stats; simple countable events like errors and wild pitches per 9 innings, etc. I'll mix them up, and you guess which line corresponds to 2010.

Year    Fld%    E/9     PB/9    WP/9    SB/9    CS/9    CS%
xxxx .970 0.20 0.07 0.41 0.81 0.20 20%
xxxx .991 0.08 0.10 0.46 0.77 0.15 17%
xxxx .981 0.15 0.03 0.24 0.65 0.23 26%
xxxx .988 0.10 0.08 0.36 0.71 0.25 26%
xxxx .985 0.11 0.10 0.63 0.70 0.18 20%
---------------------------------------------------
Avg. .985 0.13 0.08 0.42 0.73 0.20 23%

Does any one of these seasons look much different than the others? Maybe the second one, since it has the lowest caught-stealing percentage and the highest fielding percentage. But otherwise, they all look pretty much the same to me.

Here's the answer:

Year    Fld%    E/9     PB/9    WP/9    SB/9    CS/9    CS%
2006 .970 0.20 0.07 0.41 0.81 0.20 20%
2007 .991 0.08 0.10 0.46 0.77 0.15 17%
2008 .981 0.15 0.03 0.24 0.65 0.23 26%
2009 .988 0.10 0.08 0.36 0.71 0.25 26%
2010 .985 0.11 0.10 0.63 0.70 0.18 20%
---------------------------------------------------
Avg. .985 0.13 0.08 0.42 0.73 0.20 23%

That's right, I just happened to "mix them up" into chronological order.

Mathis's throwing was not "off" last season. He threw out just 20% of attempted base-stealers, but that's not far below his career norm. He even committed throwing errors at a slightly lower rate than he has in the past. And if blocking pitches in the dirt correlates with wild pitches, he did that really, really poorly.

So did he field the ball "as well as anyone in the game?" Here are the league averages for the seasons in question:

Year    Fld%    E/9     PB/9    WP/9    SB/9    CS/9    CS%
2006 .992 0.06 0.07 0.31 0.58 0.23 29%
2007 .991 0.06 0.07 0.31 0.60 0.21 26%
2008 .991 0.06 0.06 0.33 0.58 0.21 27%
2009 .992 0.06 0.06 0.33 0.62 0.24 28%
2010 .990 0.07 0.06 0.35 0.61 0.23 28%
---------------------------------------------------
Avg. .991 0.06 0.06 0.33 0.6 0.23 27%

If "anyone in the game" allows stolen bases noticeably more often than average, prevents wild pitches considerably less frequently than average, and commits errors more than twice as often as average, then yes, I suppose Jeff Mathis does field his position about as well as anyone in the game.

Surely he's better than Mike Napoli, at least.

               Fld%    E/9     PB/9    WP/9    SB/9    CS/9    CS%
Jeff Mathis .985 0.13 0.08 0.42 0.73 0.20 23%
Mike Napoli .988 0.09 0.06 0.34 0.74 0.23 24%

Not only does Jeff Mathis not do these things as well as average, he doesn't even do them as well as his offensively-minded counterpart. They also both caught for the same pitching staff, in case you were worried about Angel pitchers throwing more difficult-to-handle pitches than the rest of the league.

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.

Trust us, we know.

We also know that it's specious print fodder for Mathis apologists.

The CERA Gap is as fictitious as the Cold War Missile Gap. It has the credibility of Baghdad Bob, the stability of the San Jacinto Fault, and the solidity of magic fairy dust. As I said, although one recent study has turned up evidence linking catchers with pitching performance, Napoli's bat generates many times more runs than Mathis saves.

Most of the perceived gap is coincidence, and some is systematic bias. For instance, Mathis caught Ervin Santana 43 times in 2008 and 2010 (his good years) and just 23 times in 2007 and 2009 (his bad years). Napoli caught him 13 times in good years and 18 times in bad. Meanwhile, Napoli was the catcher of choice for an army of replacement pitchers in 2009. Mathis's CERA was also safe on the disabled list during one of the darkest times in recent Angels pitching history. Scott Kazmir's 13 ER combustion in Oakland alone accounted for one-third of the 2010 CERA Gap.

Mike Scioscia's astro-CERAlogy is the Angels' Vladimir Shpunt. Sure, we all laughed when we heard that Frank and Jamie McCourt paid a Russian huckster hundreds of thousands of dollars to funnel mystical energy into the Dodgers' winning percentage. Then we remembered that Jeff Mathis makes even more money.

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.

You said "bums," plural. We're supposed to be talking about Mathis here.

No one is calling Napoli a bum. He's a weak defensive player, but his bat more than makes up for it. His bat is so strong, the Angels have managed above-average production from his position every year in spite of Jeff Mathis.

But I'd also like to point out that the Angels still lost 195 games in those three seasons. Apparently they couldn't have possibly lost fewer.

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.

Suboptimal, who learned how to drive in high school, is an exceptionally conscientious driver who has shown he doesn't shy away from fuel-efficient vehicles. In 25 recent road trips, his car is averaging 30.5 MPG with an average cost of $3.05 per gallon.

Seriously, does anyone care?

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

Which is why they have so many disillusioned fans.

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Angels believe that Jeff Mathis is a valuable player. No one in a position to do so will even ask them a simple question: "Like, what the hell, Angels?"

Lyle Spencer was in a position to do so. Instead, he spun a sentimental tale of logical inconsistency from his blissfully selective memory. The numbers don't support him, of course, but we don't even need numbers in this case. I've watched all but a few dozen of Jeff Mathis's career starts. I've seen exactly the same things on the field. Why is my perception so radically different?

Spencer would probably mock my lack of first-hand experience. He would probably say that since I couldn't tell Charlie Daniels' gnarled country fiddle from a finely-tuned Stradivarius in the hands of a classical master, I shouldn't presume to know more about major-league catchers than the Sensei himself.

I say nuts to that.

I can't play a violin, but I've heard lots of other people doing it. I couldn't tell a senior at Julliard from a sophomore at Berklee, but I can tell Itzhak Perlman from a child's first arpeggio.

Suppose you asked that child's mother if Itzhak Perlman is a more "valuable" violinist. Would you get an impartial answer?

From all accounts, Jeff Mathis works hard, plays hard, gets along well with others, volunteers at a local soup kitchen, shakes the hand of every veteran in a nearby hospital once each Tuesday, has saved children and small animals from the wreck of a sunken battleship, etc. etc. etc.. He is...the Most Endearing Man in the World.

But now that Mike Scioscia has swallowed Jeff Mathis in his giant heart, he's occluding his left ventricle. With his reputation around the game, I suppose it's not surprising that someone has yet to question the emperor's new pacemaker. Except for those inflamed bloggers.

But I digress. This saga will, in all likelihood, soon be over. A player's K/BB ratio is probably the most injury-proofed, least luck-related batting statistic (and therefore most indicative of skill), and Mathis fell from an acceptable 3:1 in 2007-2009 to a moribund 10:1 last season. The charmed CERA cannot last forever. His major-league career is probably on death row.

We won't be happy when the time comes, but we won't be sad either. Our feelings for Jeff Mathis: Human Being are not the same as our thoughts about Jeff Mathis: Major League Catcher.

Unlike so many of their disillusioned fans, can the Angels say the same?

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