Players Reflect On Arbitration Hearings: Jeff Mathis

In a day and age where sabermetric stats like wins above replacement have become more and more popular, it can be easy to overlook basic numbers.

In the arbitration case involving catcher Jeff Mathis and Angels in 2010, a difference of $600K was decided in large part because of one simple stat: games started.

Mathis and the Angels couldn’t agree to a contract for 2010, leaving them no choice but to go to arbitration. The club filed at $700K while Mathis countered with a request of $1.3MM.

“If there was any chance to work it out for us to get what we thought was fair, we would have done it,” Mathis said. “We wouldn’t have chanced to go in there and go through all of that.

“It’s not something that any player wants to go through or deal with. It’s a rough process, especially if you go all the way to the hearing like I did. There’s stuff that goes on in that room that I wouldn’t suggest anybody experience or be a part of. … You don’t want to be a part of anything like that.”

The case turned out to be one of the more fascinating arbitration hearings in recent memory. The Angels centered their case around Mathis’ poor offensive numbers. They pointed out that his career .200 batting average was among the worst in arbitration case history. His on-base percentage, slugging percentage and strikeout totals weren’t much better.

“They were really centered in on what the offensive numbers were,” said Mathis’ longtime agent BB Abbott. “That was their entire case, what Jeff had done offensively for the team.”

Because the numbers were poor, it was an easy and obvious area for the Angels to focus on. It seemed like the team had a good argument. And Abbott acknowledged this, saying in his case in chief that Mathis wasn’t someone who would usually impact a game with his bat.

But Abbott and his group found an area where Mathis did impact the game: defense became the focus of their case. A former catcher himself, Angels manager Mike Scioscia put heavy emphasis on the defensive side of catching. Mathis certainly fit that bill.

Mike Napoli received much of the attention in Anaheim because his offensive numbers were much better. He was seen by most as the starting catcher and Mathis was looked at as the backup. And that’s what the Angels argued.

The only problem with this analysis was that Mathis had started more games behind the plate the previous two seasons than Napoli. Mathis started 168 games at catcher during the 2008 and 2009 seasons while Napoli started 155.

“Because of Mike Scioscia and how he handles his catching tandem, they really had a couple of different starting catchers,” Abbott said. “That’s just a very rare thing. Because of Mike Napoli’s numbers and the offensive output that he had, it would be easy to slap that label as a starting catcher on him. Usually in those situations you have a starting catcher and a backup catcher.

“In Jeff’s case, the whole central theme of our case was that they had two starting catchers. They were co-starting catchers. Jeff had caught just as many games, in fact he caught more games than Mike over a two-year period. To put this guy into the salary structure of a backup catcher, in our eyes wasn’t appropriate. In the team’s eyes it was.”

To help prove their case, Abbott and his group used 12 quotes from Scioscia and other front office personnel to show how much weight the club put on a catcher and his defense. They also used a three-year comparable prior to their first time eligible arbitration years to show that Mathis had more starts behind the plate during that time.

The three arbitrators reviewing the case were Elliott Shiftman, Steven Wolf and Margaret Brogan. They took 24 hours to deliberate before deciding in Mathis’ favor, awarding him his number of $1.3MM.

“There were absolutely no hard feelings on either side,” Abbott said. “Jeff knew what was going to be presented in front of him, he was very well prepared. He knew exactly what the team's case was going to be and, like I said, the only thing we made and ultimately what won it for us was that, listen, we understand that he’s going to be at the bottom of the starting catcher salary structure but he should be in that salary structure and not at the bottom of the backup catchers' salary structure. Ultimately the arbitration panel agreed.”

The case was a big one for Mathis because of the future implications it could have had on his earnings. A player’s salary in his first year of arbitration can set the pay scale for the years to come.

“The arbitration panel is going to pick one or the other, so Jeff would have been coming off of either $700K or $1.3MM the next year,” Abbott said. “A win or loss in arbitration can continue to follow you. He was coming off $1.3MM and Jeff went to $1.7MM. If he comes off $700K, he’s going into the low $1MM figures.

“It’s either the gift that keeps on giving or the gift that keeps on taking away so that’s why going to arbitration your first year is a very tough decision and a very tough proposition because the salaries that come in subsequent years could be based on what that award is or that first year salary is and that’s something you have to consider when you are considering whether or not to take a case to a hearing.”

Mathis, now with the Marlins, broke his collarbone in the spring opener Saturday after a foul tip from Matt Holliday fractured his right clavicle. He could be out for as much as six weeks.

But reflecting back on the arbitration process and hearing, Mathis said, “When you first sign up to play this game you don’t ever think of that part of professional baseball and the more years you get into it and the stuff that starts happening with arbitration and free agency and all that. You really get to understand the business side of it.

“It stinks. It’s not something that you want to do or hear or hear from anybody else. It’s part of the game and baseball and the business side and you just deal with.”

It was probably much easier for Mathis to deal with it since he won.

Kyle Lohse reflected on past arbitration hearings in the debut instalment of this series.

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