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Jeff Mathis Making History Backwards

Jeff Mathis is not just a bad baseball player. He's one of the best bad baseball players of all time. Players like him rarely stay in the major leagues long enough to build a track record of badness, but Mathis will soon be in his second year of arbitration. We are witnessing the making of history right before our eyes, almost every single night. When our grandchildren ask us about the great baseball feats of our generation, here are the things we can tell them about Jeff Mathis.

Jeff Mathis has now accumulated 1022 plate appearances in his major league career, quite a few for a non-pitcher with his, um, batting "issues." Sure there have been worse hitters around, but almost all of them get fired before they can do too much damage. Where does Mathis's offensive ineptitude stand on the list of the all-time worst career performances by batters with more than 1000 PAs?
  • .200 AVG: 7th worst in the history of baseball
  • .267 OBP: 51st worst in the history of baseball
  • 53 OPS+: 33rd worst in the history of baseball

Owning the 7th worst career batting average ever is quite an accomplishment, since there are more than 3,000 qualifed players since 1871, including players who played entirely in the dead ball era. A 100 OPS+ is average by definition, so we see that after adjusting for the leagues in which he played, Mathis with his 53 OPS+ is undoubtedly one of the worst hitters in the history of the game.

However, even adjusting for the league average doesn't do Jeff justice. The distribution of player performances around the mean changes from year to year too. With more money and deeper talent pools, modern baseball teams don't tolerate players as far below the mean as they used to. (In other words, modern leagues are positively skewed: this graph illustrates the point.) So even Jeff Mathis's 53 career OPS+, the 33rd lowest all time, might not truly reflect to just how bad he is in context.

So just for fun, let's consider Jeff in his own place and time. The present day is sometimes called the "post-strike era," referring to the 1994 players' strike. It's a totally arbitrary division, but there are some good reasons to stick with it. Teams didn't settle on the current practices of pitching management (i.e. closers, five-man rotations, fixed pitch counts, etc.) until the nineties. There was also that little matter of guys sticking needles in their behinds. I'm not convinced the run scoring increases in the post-strike era can be conclusively pinned on steroids, but you can make of it what you will.

Well then, how does Jeff Mathis fit in among his contemporaries?

  • .200 AVG: absolute worst in the post-strike era (by 12 points!)
  • .267 OBP: absolute worst in the post-strike era
  • .313 SLG: 13th worst in the post-strike era
  • .583 OPS: absolute worst in the post-strike era
  • 53 OPS+: absolute worst in the post-strike era

If batting averages are your thing, then Mathis is the worst hitter in modern history by a very large margin. Looking beyond that, his career 7.6% walk rate and .116 isolated power are actually not horrible. They might even look decent on a player with a high average, but Jeff's OPS (and hence OPS+) is dragged to oblivion by his pitiful batting average.

I was able to find three comparable hitters (all catchers) since the strike, two of whom even played for the Angels. Remember Matt Walbeck? Mike Scioscia gave him 155 PAs back in 2000. Yeah, his career OPS+ was 54. Jorge Fabregas played for the Angels twice, and he got 253 PAs in 2000-20001. Alberto Castillo is the other comparable.

Let's compare Mathis to active or recently active players by looking at just last three years. The cut-off on these rankings is now 500 PA (Mathis has 852):

  • .202 AVG: 3rd worst in the last three years (Andruw Jones and Rob Johnson: .200)
  • .269 OBP: 4th worst in the last three years (John McDonald: .265)
  • .316 SLG: 12th worst in the last three years (Willy Taveras: .295)
  • .585 OPS: 2nd worst in the last three years (Rob Johnson: .584)
  • 31.0% K/PA: 12th worst in the last three years (Jack Cust: 38.0%)
  • 3.70 K/BB: 22nd worst in the last three years (Humberto Quintero: 6.25)
  • 13.5% Line Drive %: 2nd worst in the last three years (Alexi Casilla: 13.4%)
  • 48.5% Flyball %: 15th highest in the last three years (not necessarily bad on its own)
  • 18.7% Infield Fly %: 5th worst in the last three years (Eric Byrnes: 25.7%)
  • 71.0% Contact %: 10th worst in the last three years (Mark Reynolds: 62.5%)
  • 13.4% Swinging Strike %: 17th worst in the last three years (Miguel Olivo: 19.7%)
  • .259 wOBA (weighted on-base average): absolute worst in the last three years

This gives us an idea why Jeff Mathis is such a bad hitter. No one else can duplicate his patented blend of whiffing and popping the ball up. Many of the players "ahead" of Mathis in these rankings have actually received considerably less playing time. Rob Johnson, who is equally bad with the stick, has about half as many major league PAs. Humberto Quintero doesn't have as many either, even though he joined the league in 2003.

But Jeff Mathis makes it all up in defensive value, right? Well, his 23% career caught stealing rate is below average (26%). There's also this fact about him leading all catchers in throwing errors ever since 2007 in spite of being only a part time player. So there goes that theory. And before you ask: no, CERA is not actually a skill.

In any case, Jeff Mathis is not the worst player in baseball. He's not even the worst player on his own team. But he is very probably the worst hitting non-pitcher with a regular job. He also has a strong claim on the worst hitting non-pitcher with a regular job since the '94 strike. He's the worst hitter we've seen for quite awhile, and he has a chance to be the worst hitter with a regular job you'll ever see. And Mathis is still just burnishing his legacy, as he actually appears to be getting worse.

Because of positional adjustments (poor offense is much more acceptable from a catcher than say, a left-fielder), Mathis might not be the most harmful regular position player recently in the league. He's certainly not far from it, though, and among the other candidates--Willy Taveras, Jeff Francoeur, Gary Matthews Jr.--Mathis is probably the only one you'll find who hasn't been traded or released at least once in the last few years.

Why? Why have Mike Scioscia and the Angels stuck with him so long? Reason is insufficient to the task. I've reached my own conclusion though, and I encourage you to do likewise. I think I'm living a lucid dream in the world of Inception. Jeff Mathis is my totem: he's how I know if I'm asleep or awake. If I'm in doubt about the reality of my surroundings, I can just check recent box scores and press statements. Is Jeff Mathis still in an Angels uniform? Does Mike Scioscia still refer to him as a "premium" catcher? If yes, then I know this isn't real. Things make sense in the real world. So I'd better to get on with stealing secrets or whatever I'm supposed to be doing while I'm asleep so that I can go back to reality, where people who are bad at their jobs actually get fired.

Oh by the way, here's a list of recent pitchers who are (or were) better career hitters than Jeff Mathis:

  • Mike Hampton: 67 OPS+ in 845 PA
  • Dontrelle Willis: 67 OPS+ in 413 PA
  • Adam Wainwright: 60 OPS+ in 321 PA
  • Carlos Zambrano: 57 OPS+ in 639 PA