ARLINGTON -- Catcher Jeff Mathis has never been considered a good offensive player in the Major Leagues. His career .198 batting average and .306 slugging percentage pretty much confirm that scouting report.
Still, he has managed to spend 14 seasons in the big leagues because of an outstanding defensive reputation, and that is why the Rangers have signed him to a two-year contract, with the deal being officially announced on Tuesday. The Rangers are placing a high value on Mathis being able to work with both their pitching staff and young catching prospects Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Jose Trevino.
According to sources, the contract is for $6.25 million.
It would be a stretch to suggest that Mathis, who will be 36 in March, can be an everyday catcher. He started 61 games for the D-backs last season, his most since 2013 with the Marlins.
But Mathis should be able to help the Rangers defensively when he does suit up. His ability to call games and work with pitchers goes back to breaking in with the Angels in 2005 and learning under manager Mike Scioscia.
"He comes from the Mike Scioscia school of catching, so you know he can catch," said former Rangers pitcher Darren Oliver, who was Mathis' teammate with the Angels. "Scioscia knows what he is doing when it comes to catchers. He is tough on them. Jeff has some leadership qualities and should be able to help our pitchers. He should help more than just them, I'm hoping he can help everybody in the clubhouse. He can catch, call games, block balls -- all that stuff. He will help."
According to Baseball Prospectus, Mathis was sixth among 117 catchers in framing runs last season. Statcast™ ranked Mathis No. 1 in his ability to get borderline pitches called for strikes. Statcast™ had Mathis getting 56.8 percent of those pitches called for strikes, the highest ratio in the Major Leagues. Over the past two years, Mathis has thrown out 39.7 percent of attempted basestealers.
"You have to appreciate him with your own eyes," said one Major League talent evaluator. "Handling pitchers and calling games, he is tremendous. He has always had a tremendous reputation defensively."
Robinson Chirinos was the Rangers' primary catcher last season but the club elected not to pick up his $4.5 million option for 2019. The obvious reason was that Chirinos did not meet the Rangers' defensive expectations, throwing out just six of 59 attempted basestealers last season.
Kiner-Falefa and Trevino are the other two catchers on the 40-man roster. Kiner-Falefa is a converted infielder who is still learning the catching trade. He started 35 games at catcher this past season and another 67 in his career in the Minors. Trevino is considered a standout defensive prospect, winning two Gold Gloves in the Minor Leagues, but his Double-A season was cut short by surgery on his left (non-throwing) shoulder back in July.
The Rangers will continue to look for catching help on the free agent market. Martin Maldonado, who was with the Angels and Astros in 2018, also has a strong defensive reputation. Brian McCann is a left-handed-hitting veteran who offers a potential platoon with Mathis. Former Rangers catcher Jonathan Lucroy is also a free agent, although his time in Texas did not end well in 2017.
The Rangers signed Jett Bandy to a Minor League contract earlier in November. He is another Scioscia pupil, having spent 2015-16 with the Angels and the last two seasons as a backup with the Brewers.