Doing the Math(eny)
The more I read about Matheny, the more I like, maybe love, getting him. The linked Merc story and last week's Chron talks glowingly about how the pitchers love working with Matheny and how he acts like he is one of them, going as far as learning Spanish in college so that he would be able to communicate with the Latino pitchers. He lives and breathes catching and sees himself as an extension of the pitcher, from the article, "He approaches his craft with a methodical attention to detail." He is a value add-on, psyche advisor/psychiatrist to the pitcher, learning his style, his strengths and weaknesses, analyzing how that matches up against each batter, helping them to just do it and be the best they can be. And that's good because his offense sucks greatly especially relative to his predecessor, Pierzynski, so he better provide a lot of value defensively.
But how does his defense compared statistically, though we all know that defensive stats are still in the 19th century?
Using Fielding Win Shares, Matheny got 8.1 in 2004 while Pierzynski got 4.9. However, A.J. had a poor year for the Giants (no surprise there), as he was basically equal to (and technically higher than) Matheny in 2003: 6.84 vs. 6.76. And in terms of total W.S., A.J. was still higher than Matheny in 2004, despite his drop in defense and offense, and was significantly higher than Matheny in 2003, doubling his offense.
Using Baseball Prospectus' fielding stats, depending on which of their exotic stats you want to use, Matheny's defense was around 10-15 runs better than Pierzynski, which works out to around 1 to 1.5 wins (based on 10 runs/win) for his defense.
From Bill James's Handbook, they both played about the same amount (977.2 IP/110 games started for Matheny vs. 1022.0 IP/117 games started for A.J.), but Matheny had 45 more putouts (742 vs. 697), 2 more assists (58 vs. 56), 4 more doubleplays (10 vs. 6), 7 less passed balls (2 vs. 9), basically same fielding percentage (.999, 1 errror each), better caught stealing (16/54 with 1 due to pitcher for 28% caught by Matheny vs. 15/66 with 4 due to pitcher for 18% caught by A.J.), and pitcher's ERA (3.88 vs. 4.30, though that is not comparable between teams).
And, FYI, Torrealba's stats here was not close to Matheny's except for putouts and doubleplays, else it was much worse, from a rough guess comparing on a per inning basis where appropriate. Another interesting note is that Matheny played less than A.J. so Torrealba will probably see more playing time in 2005 than he did in 2004 (hopefully he will get all the LHP starts as he kills LHP).
So, overall and from a number of different angles, Matheny appears to be much better than Pierzynski defensively - no surprise there - but I don't get the sense from all the above stats that he is THAT much better defensively, at least enough to overcome A.J.'s offensive achievements, especially since A.J. greatly improved the Giants offense against RHP.
Thus Giants fans are left thinking: do we drink the Kool-Aid or don't we? Is Matheny's intangibles that valuable to the pitching staff to overcome the drop in offense from Pierzynski? Is Matheny's consistently high quality defense better than the varying quality we might get from A.J.?
Count me among the Kool-Aid drinkers. To me, pitching is such a mental game that anything a catcher can do to help put the pitcher at ease is a big plus. In addition, with the Giants staff going on a youth movement that started with Williams' and Foppert's ascension to the starting rotation in 2003, continued with Lowry's and Hennessey's contributions in 2004, and will probably see most of the pitching staff become home grown/developed by as early as 2007 (Williams, Lowry, Foppert, Cain, Valdez, Misch, Hennessey, Correia, Simon, Aardsma, Bateman, Munter could all be up by then and contributing), a starting catcher who can help them smooth out their performances, put them more at ease in dealing with the jitters and pitching blowouts, teach them the ropes of being a MLB pitcher, would be very valuable.
Is it $4M/year valuable? It might seem high to some but Damian Miller got $3M/year this year and it is acknowledged in the press that Matheny is considered a better catcher than Miller defensively though Miller is no slouch either. Looking at Miller's stats in the Bill James handbook, his stats looked more like Pierzynski's than Matheny's. In BP, he rates out at 9-11 runs above average or 1 win, so he was slightly behind Matheny there. From W.S. perspective, he again was a little behind Matheny with 7.8 defensive Win Shares, but in total was ahead with 15 Win Shares vs. Matheny's 10 Win Shares. Miller is one year older as well and has only 5 seasons with over 100 games while Matheny has 8 seasons. So it seems the Giants overpaid a little vs. Miller but not a lot.
Historically, Matheny has been good enough for others to recognize his abilities. Matheny has won three Gold Gloves (neither Pierzynski or Miller has one). In addition, he owns the major-league records for most consecutive errorless games (252) and chances without an error (1,565). Last year, he helped the Cardinals pitching staff to the second-lowest ERA in the National League (3.75) and the staff was a bunch of no-names and youngsters.
Interesting enough, the two pitchers who have been praising Matheny the most in the press - Tomko and Herges - are the same pitchers who "outed" Pierzynski last year by going to the press. Herges said, "You can feel him care." Brett Tomko said, "Mike's the best, man. He's probably thinking more than you are out there." He also said, "... I think Mike is going to take more time to get to know the pitchers, every one of them, who they are, what makes them tick, how they throw. In addition, Schmidt said, "Last year was tough. I was used to having Benito. But this is going to be a smooth transition." Jason Christiansen said that he expects the pitching staff to jell much more quickly than it did last year, when the team got off to a slow start.
And here's a good one from Tomko on Pierzynski's $100 offer: "Consider the source," Tomko said. "Once an ass, always an ass."