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One of the Worst Hitters in Baseball is a Hot Commodity

In February 2019, The Wall Street Journal called Major League Baseball player Jeff Mathis one of the most hotly anticipated free agents in baseball. But here’s what’s surprising about Mathis: he’s a catcher, he’s 36-years-old (as of March 2019), and he owns a lifetime batting average of .198. If you're not familiar with pro baseball, that's awful! Among all players with at least 2,500 career plate appearances dating back to 1876, only one has batted worse: Bill Bergen, who started playing pro baseball in 1901.

Mathis admitted, “I’d like to have better numbers on the back of my card and do a little more at the plate, there’s no doubt. Obviously, that [stuff] bothers me." One of his former coaches said, “If you just looked at the raw numbers, it’s a head-scratcher. You’d be like, ‘How is this guy still playing?’”

The article explains why Mathis is not only still playing but thriving:

The answer, of course, is defense. It’s long been understood that a catcher is quite possibly the most important position on the field, given his involvement with every pitch thrown … [First], Mathis is an elite pitch-framer—the ability to receive the ball in such a way that it fools umpires into believing balls are strikes … He also excels at blocking pitches in the dirt, another skill that wasn’t measurable in the not-so-distant past. But what makes him special … cannot be seen, expressed, or comprehended with numbers alone. Mathis is an expert at game-calling—the process of determining which pitches his pitchers throw and in what location—a trait that is impossible to see, but has an enormous impact on the success of a pitching staff …

His former team’s general manager said, “In the catching fraternity, in that little niche of the industry, Mathis is revered for being the best at what they all want to be the best at.”


Jared Diamond, "One of the Worst Hitters in Baseball History Is Now a Hot Commodity," The Wall Street Journal (2-25-19)

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