In the introductory press conference of Robinson Chirinos, GM Jon Daniels laid out his expectations for the role of Jeff Mathis on the Texas Rangers in 2020.
After the Texas Rangers agreed to a deal to reunite with free agent catcher Robinson Chirinos, many jumped to the conclusion that Jeff Mathis‘ time with the club was approaching an end. However, on Wednesday, Jon Daniels put to bed some of those thoughts stating that he anticipated Chirinos and Mathis to form the big league catching tandem, rather than Chirinos and Jose Trevino, like many had expected.
This is a bit of a surprising statement from Daniels at this point in the offseason but one that could give us a glimpse into how the Rangers valued Mathis last season. At the plate, Mathis had a poor season by big league standards only producing a .158 batting average and .443 OPS. His offensive production was among the leagues worst and as such, he often drew the ire of Rangers fans during the 2019 campaign. Over the course of his career, Mathis has never been an offensive powerhouse with only a career .195 average and .552 OPS, but he’s well-known for his defensive work and ability to mesh with a pitching staff.
His defensive numbers were down last year however which does draw some concern because in combination with his offensive production, he didn’t bring much positive value statistically to the Rangers. Despite this, for Texas, the case of Jeff Mathis may be more about believing than seeing. Despite the lower defensive measurements that signal that he was not saving the club any runs, there has been some belief that he played a large role in the effectiveness of Mike Minor and Lance Lynn last season. Both Minor and Lynn put together some of their career best numbers with Minor earning an All-Star nod and Lynn finishing 5th in AL Cy Young voting.
There are metrics out there that can give us an idea of valuable a catcher is to his pitching staff. Certain groups measure framing chances, successful frames and how valuable that is to the team. A factor that isn’t all that measurable though is how comfortable a staff is pitching to a catcher. Whether it’s how that catcher builds personal relationships or how a particular catcher manages a game, certain pitchers prefer pitching to certain catchers and while the results of that won’t pop up in the catchers advanced stats, it does improve the performances of the staff.
With Minor and Lynn both taking big steps forward in 2019 and creating a one-two pairing that is among the best starter pairings in baseball, it is conceivable that Texas feels Mathis played a role in that success. The Texas Rangers have seemingly predicated their 2020 approach on starting pitching making a notable move for long time Indians ace, Corey Kluber, as well as adding free agents Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles, to build a formidable rotation. That approach though relies on Minor and Lynn continuing much of the success they saw in 2019 meaning if Texas feels Mathis played a role in that success, it behooves them to hold onto the veteran.
Mathis’ career worst numbers in 2019 could also be due to elevated work load. Mathis played 88 games for the Rangers last season, the most he’s played since 2011 when he appeared 93 times for the Angels. For a player in their mid-30’s that also plays a physically demanding position, it’s understandable the negative impact that would be realized. By bringing in Robinson Chirinos, Texas now has another viable catching option and one who can produce offensively despite catching over 100 games in both 2018 and 2019.
All this to say, Mathis likely could have more pressure to perform this season with Jose Trevino knocking on the door of the big leagues. Trevino got a late season call up in 2019 and did some impressive things with the bat despite being a definitively glove first catcher. If Mathis cannot get his bat to a more valuable level, the Texas Rangers likely will be quicker to make a move.