Overpaid Glove-Tree Catchers
The Diamondbacks just signed light-hitting, defense-first catcher Jeff Mathis to a two-year $4 million contract. While the contract is relatively small potatoes in today’s MLB, Mathis is still the second all-field, no-hit catcher to get a multi-year, multi-million deal this off-season.
Mathis will be 34 next season, and fangraphs values his career MLB performance as worth -$5.3 million. His defense is indeed above major league average but his hitting is so poor that even at a position where a lot of hitting isn’t expected, he hurts the team the more he plays.
Guys like Mathis and Drew Butera may be good in the club house, and they certainly make a team’s pitchers happy behind the plate, but they don’t help a team with their total lack of offensive production. Butera at least hit in a little capacity in 2016, but Mathis has never had a single season OPS higher than .642.
Clearly, the fact that both Mathis and Butera got multi-year deals for roughly the same amount means that this is the value that teams give to veteran good-field, no-hit back-up catchers. It just doesn’t make sense to me.
The old baseball term “glove-tree” refers to the fact that it has typically been much easier to find a player who can provide above-average major league defense than it is to find a player who can provide adequate major league defense at a defense-first position who can also hit. If you need one of the defense-first players, you just go shake the glove-tree, and one will fall out. You sure don’t give these guys multi-year contracts at more than three times the league’s minimum wage, at least not if you hope to be competitive.
In this age of sabermetrics, where defensive values are more accurately known than ever before, but defensive performance is still largely undervalued, it is hard to understand why players whose defense analytically does not make up for their lack of offense should get be getting $4 million contracts.