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Jeff Mathis' defense earns him playing time at catcher for Angels

Mathis can't hit nearly as well as Mike Napoli, but Angels Manager Mike Scioscia places a premium on stopping runs.

March 05, 2009|Bill Shaikin

TEMPE, ARIZ. — From a glance at the offensive numbers, Jeff Mathis has no business catching ahead of Mike Napoli.

Mathis hit .194 last season, with nine home runs in 283 at-bats. Napoli hit .273, with 20 home runs in 227 at-bats. The catchers struck out at the same rate, but Napoli walked half again as much.

But Angels Manager Mike Scioscia evaluates that position with a defense-first philosophy, looking less at how many runs a catcher might help produce at bat and more at how many runs he might help prevent behind the plate. The Angels' pitchers gave up almost one fewer run per game with Mathis rather than Napoli catching for much of last season.

"If you string out 162 games, and you have one catcher who's giving up one run a game less," Scioscia said, "as net runs go, he's 162 runs ahead. There's a defensive aspect of catching we pay a lot of attention to. I think a catcher will influence a game more with his defense than he will with his four at-bats."

Scioscia said Mathis' defense last season was "as good as anybody in baseball" and said he was one of the Angels' most valuable players.

Scioscia said he has not decided how to split playing time between Mathis and Napoli, although he said Napoli has improved greatly on defense. If the Angels carry 11 pitchers, Scioscia said, they could carry three catchers and use Napoli at designated hitter on occasion.

Mathis reported to spring training one week early, at the Angels' request, solely to work on his offense. The early returns are positive; Mathis hit two home runs in his last game.

"Jeff has the ability to drive the ball," Scioscia said. "He needs to balance that by being a little tougher out." Said Mathis: "We put so much emphasis on the catching side, but you want to contribute on the offensive side."

Short hops

Barry Bonds is available to play this season after a delay in his perjury trial. How much interest might the Angels have in Bonds? "None," General Manager Tony Reagins said. . . . Reagins said he and Steve Hilliard, the agent for ace John Lackey, have yet to discuss parameters for a contract extension but plan to do so soon. Lackey, who otherwise figures to be the top available starter in free agency next fall, has said he would consider an extension if negotiations can be completed by opening day. . . . Joe Saunders pitched two scoreless innings in his spring debut, a 13-6 victory over the South Africa entry in the World Baseball Classic.

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bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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