In defense of Jeff Mathis

Catcher Jeff Mathis is a polarizing figure. The parameters seem to be the walls of the Angels clubhouse.

Fans and media members often wonder how the Angels can stick with a catcher who has such limited offensive skills (.199 lifetime average), while Angels pitchers wonder how they could do it without him. They’re able to throw pitches in the dirt without worrying about giving runners a cheap extra base because Mathis is nimble enough to block them.

“He’s arguably the best defensive catcher in the league, I think,” Jered Weaver said. “He’s like a shortstop back there, he’s just so quick.”

Weaver had a 3.06 ERA working to Mathis last year and a 4.75 ERA working to the other primary catcher, Mike Napoli.

Mathis got off to a roaring start on Opening Day, when he homered and helped get Weaver into the seventh inning without allowing a run. That happened to be his 28th birthday. Two days later, what the Angels hoped would be a fast start smacked into a wall.

Mathis was hitless in six at-bats Sunday during the Angels’ 12-9 loss in 13 innings to the Kansas City Royals. He also failed to throw out any of the six Royals who tried to steal a base off him.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the second time in the modern era that a catcher had gone 0-for-6 hitting and throwing. The other guy to do it was the San Francisco Giants’ Bob Brenly on May 11, 1988 against the St. Louis Cardinals in 16 innings. The Giants won that game.

After five major-league seasons, do we have a pretty good peg on Mathis’ upside, or could he still be better than people think? The Angels insist there’s still more in there. Mathis said evaluating him based on last season isn’t a fair measuring stick. He broke his wrist in late April and returned nine weeks later, a bit on the early side for an injury of that magnitude.

He was never right after the injury as the pain lingered through August. He was hitting .324 before the injury and wound up at .195. He’s not immune to the criticism in cyberspace, on the radio and in newspapers. He feels some of it last season was unfair.

“That’s just people who don’t know anything about a game, not just baseball, but any person battling an injury, coming back, missing time,” Mathis said. “They’re oblivious to all of what goes into it. I don’t look for it, but when I do hear it it’s nothing but motivation for me.”

Weaver said Mathis, if he stays healthy, “is going to prove this year all those guys who say bad things about him wrong. He’s going to turn that around and have a great year for us.”

The Angels are carrying three catchers, but so far Mathis has started three games. Bobby Wilson started the other, while Hank Conger, 23, hasn’t budged from the bench. As usual, manager Mike Scioscia is determining playing time based more on defensive skills rather than offensive results.

The other trait that makes Mathis popular in the clubhouse is his willingness to play in pain. He said he doesn’t regret returning after nine weeks, when such an injury often takes 10-16 to heal properly.

“I was chomping at the bit to get back in there,” Mathis said. “People play hurt all the time. It wasn’t broken any more, it was healed. I wanted to get back in there and battle with the boys.”