Angels' Mathis happy about competition
Team believes struggles last season will help him in future
TEMPE, Ariz. -- A measure of growth is learning from adversity, and Jeff Mathis won't make the same mistake twice.
Despite having a big-league starting catcher's job essentially laid at his feet and having the skills and organizational experience to warrant the opportunity, Mathis committed a prospect's greatest fear.
He didn't get it done.
But as anyone who is true to his calling and refuses to accept defeat, Mathis only sees purpose in a period of his young career that could have been deflating.
"This is where you want to be your whole life and this is where I want to be now," Mathis said. "I'm going to go about it in a different way and take the pressure off."
Pressure is a powerful factor that can cause stress and turn an otherwise talented player downward, or it can provide a boost to production when it's properly channeled. The Angels remain convinced that Mathis' experience from last year will only tick upward.
"He's going to learn from the experience," manager Mike Scioscia said. "I think he was absolutely trying to be above and beyond anything he had to do last year. This guy doesn't back down from anything. I think the pressure of when things started to go wrong was tough. As he struggled it was a downward spiral for him.
"To his credit, as he went down [to the Minors], he quickly understood the things he needed to bring. I think it was a great learning experience for him and he certainly would have been back sooner with us last year if it hadn't been for the job Mike Napoli was doing. But Jeff will certainly be more relaxed and more productive this time around."
A glance at Mathis' numbers from last year requires a double-take.
He hit .108 with the Angels in April and .145 in a total of 23 games and 55 at-bats that included a September callup. But aside from his 2004 season in Double-A Arkansas when he hit .227, Mathis hit at least 50 points higher in his five other Minor League campaigns.
In 2005, his first year at Triple-A Salt Lake, Mathis hit .276 with 26 doubles, 21 homers and 73 RBIs. And in his 99 games at Salt Lake after getting demoted May 3 last season, Mathis hit .289 with 33 doubles.
"I made minor changes in my swing," Mathis said. "The hitting side, you're always doing some things."
But the offensive numbers only tell part of the story and play a secondary role at best. The mitigating factor in sending Mathis down and keeping Napoli with the big club was the production they were able to generate from behind the plate and their overall handling of the pitching staff.
"That is what it is all about, being able to help those guys on the mound," Mathis said of the emphasis placed on the catcher's role. "Especially in this organization."
Pitching defines the Angels throughout the system, and an examination of those statistics reveals the other half of the equation. Angels' pitchers posted a 5.82 ERA with Mathis behind the plate. Pitchers also allowed 60 walks and struck out just 89 batters in his 133 innings.
Compare that to Napoli, who posted a team-low catcher's ERA of 3.76 with 218 walks allowed to go along with 576 strikeouts in 716 1/3 innings. Jose Molina had similar numbers with a 3.98 ERA, 193 walks and 499 strikeouts over 603 1/3 innings. Molina also led the team by throwing out 41.3 percent of potential basestealers while Napoli threw out 29.6 percent. Mathis was good on 14.3 percent.
"I was a little uptight and I put pressure on myself, but there is no excuse for the way I played," Mathis said. "Going down there helped. I worked on handling the staff and getting the pitchers through their innings."
Unlike last year, Mathis is staring up at the competition this spring for one of the two jobs, with Napoli and Molina ahead of him on the depth chart. Mathis is encouraged by the challenge and prefers to be in a fight for a spot. Scioscia said there is plenty of time for Mathis to win a job.
"Absolutely it's a reality. There is depth, there's competition," Scioscia said of him making the club. "There will be opportunities for guys, but we'll see how the spring unfolds."
Scioscia is a manager who also happens to be a former big-league catcher and one that made two All-Star teams in his 13-year career. Where some might find that intimidating, Mathis finds it supportive.
"If anything, it is an advantage," Mathis said. "I talk with other guys in other organizations and they wish they could be here and have him as a manager."
If Mathis finds his ticket punched for Salt Lake at the end of spring instead of Anaheim, he said he would take it in stride. But with life's lessons learned, he'll get there swinging.
"I wouldn't have it any other way," Mathis said.
Mike Scarr is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.