Thursday, January 17, 2008

By Kevin Mark - Columnist
This spring in Arizona, one of the Angels position battles will be at catcher. During the 2007 season, both Jeff Mathis and Mike Napoli served as the Angels number one catcher and each can make a strong case to be the Angels 2008 opening day backstop. Even though both players have proven they are capable Major League players, the Angels will be a better team in 2008 if Mike Napoli handles the majority of the catching duties.

There is no argument that Mike Napoli is a better hitter than Jeff Mathis. During the course of his big league careers, Napoli's has been a productive hitter. His .236 batting average leaves room for improvement but his .356 OBP and .450 SLG are very good and shows he produces when he is in the lineup. Jeff Mathis' career batting average is below the Mendoza Line at .197 and his .267 OBP and .336 SLG are weak. This is not to say that Mathis should be considered a defensive catcher that will never hit. I saw him play the majority of his AAA games in 2006 and he displayed the ability to produce at the plate and there is a chance he could develop into at least an average Major League hitter. But as things stand now, Mike Napoli is a positive in the Angels lineup while Mathis is a liability.

I saw most of the home games both Napoli and Mathis played in AAA and at the time my impression was both were very good catchers. My view of them has not changed since they have been promoted to the Angels. I will preface the comments I am about to write by stating I understand defensive statistics can be imperfect and misleading. Saying this, in his Major League career, Napoli has caught 1315 innings. During that time, he had a fielding percentage of .987, allowed 3 passed balls, thrown out 26.9% of the runners attempting to steal (32/119), and has a CERA (catcher's ERA) of 4.00. (Before people start emailing me I will let you know I am aware that CERA can be a misleading statistic. However, CERA does provide some reference to a pitching staff's performance when throwing to a certain catcher.)

Mathis has caught 605 innings. His career fielding percentage of .987 is identical to Napoli's. In more than half as few of innings Mathis has allowed 6 passed balls and has thrown out 17.5% of the runners attempting to steal (11/63). Mathis has a career CERA 4.28. I will say again that defensive statistics are not a complete picture but I was surprised that Napoli's statistics in several categories were better.

Mike Napoli has demonstrated he is capable of hitting 20+ homeruns, driving in runs, and creating runs by getting on base. This type of offensive production is needed in the Angels lineup. Adding his offensive production to his Major League level catching skills, Napoli becomes the clear choice to be the Angels #1 catcher in 2008.
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