Chris Iannetta makes a play to first base to help the Rockies record an out… (Justin Edmonds / Getty Images )
Reporting from Tempe, Ariz. -- Chris Iannetta could struggle a bit at the plate, sail a few throws to second base or fail to block a few balls in the dirt in April, but even with a rocky start, the new Angels catcher would have this going for him:
He is not Jeff Mathis.
Few players in recent Angels history have been the object of more scorn than Mathis, who for six years was an agile and athletic defender, an adept handler of pitchers and a model teammate and citizen.
He just couldn't hit.
That's why Jerry Dipoto, in his first move as Angels general manager — before he sank $317.5 million into slugger Albert Pujols and pitcher C.J. Wilson — traded pitcher Tyler Chatwood to Colorado for Iannetta on Nov. 30 and, a few days later, shipped Mathis to Toronto for pitcher Brad Mills.
Many rejoiced, cheering the offensive upgrade from Mathis, a career .194 hitter with a .257 on-base percentage, 26 home runs and 139 runs batted in over 1,201 at-bats, to Iannetta, a career .235 hitter with a .357 OBP, 63 homers and 236 RBIs in 1,429 at-bats.
One fan, in response to the rising demand for Angels tickets since the Pujols and Wilson signings, wrote on Twitter: "The spike in season ticket purchases actually goes back to the day Jeff Mathis was traded, or, as we fans call it, the December Miracle."
Harsh? Perhaps, but even Angels pitcher Dan Haren felt the fans' pain.
"The leadership qualities Jeff had, the job he did behind the plate, that's the kind of stuff fans don't really see," Haren said. "They see what's flashed on the scoreboard and, unfortunately, he was hitting .200 with a couple of homers. I can sympathize with the fans too. They get fed up at some point."
But they shouldn't expect Iannetta, a 28-year-old with five years of big league experience, to be the second coming of Johnny Bench. Iannetta works counts, he draws walks and he has decent pop, hitting a career-high 18 homers in only 333 at-bats in 2008 and 14 homers in 345 at-bats last season.
But his career numbers are much better against left-handers (.252 average/.391 OBP/.520 slugging) than right-handers (.229/.345/.399).
He was also far more productive at home (.262/.377/.492 with 37 homers in 233 games) than on the road (.208/.338/.369 with 26 homers in 225 games), leading some to believe his numbers were inflated by hitter-friendly Coors Field.
"I've had my ups and downs offensively," said Iannetta, who will join Angels pitchers and catchers for their first spring-training workout Monday. "I've been consistent in terms of on-base percentage, and I've always taken pride in not getting myself out, but I know there's a lot of room for improvement."
Iannetta's primary challenge over the next six weeks won't be finding his stroke; it will be honing his defensive skills, building relationships with and earning the trust of Angels pitchers and Manager Mike Scioscia, the former Dodgers catcher who demands excellence from those behind the plate.
"Lesson No. 1 for him is getting acclimated with all of our pitchers and understanding their stuff," Scioscia said. "There are so many things you have to account for when you're calling a game. He's going to have to make a quick study of our pitchers and absorb a new league of hitters' tendencies."
Iannetta, a native of Providence, R.I., has faced several Angels pitchers and studied tapes of them over the winter. Since arriving in Arizona last week, he has caught Jered Weaver and Scott Downs in bullpen sessions.
"The pitchers' names are different, but the game is the same — a curve is a curve, a fastball is a fastball," said Iannetta, who has thrown out 25% (83 of 247) of base stealers in his career. "From that standpoint, you have some knowledge coming in. But it becomes a fluid situation.
"The more you get a feel for what they like to throw, the more you get to know them off the field, the better feel you have for them. That's something that never stops developing. I'm never going to say I've mastered it."