As a teenager in Marianna, Fla., Jeff Mathis was playing shortstop and pitching on his high school team when the club asked him to solve a problem one day.
“I had a guy on my team who threw hard --- good pitcher, had good stuff and we didn’t have anybody that could handle him,” Mathis recalled. “So they put me back there.”
And he liked it. Mathis also played football, soccer and a little basketball at the time, but it was being a baseball catcher that would propel him to a life in professional sports with the Angels -- and is still paying off for him today.
As half of the duo that splits the Angels’ catching duties -- Mike Napoli is the other half -- Mathis is known for his stellar defensive play while Napoli is known for being the better hitter.
And although big hits typically spark more headlines, Mathis is proof that dogged, everyday defense still counts. That was evident when an arbitration panel recently awarded Mathis a 2010 salary of $1.3 million, nearly double the $700,000 submitted by the Angels.
Of course, it didn’t hurt Mathis that his own bat got hot in last year’s American League Championship Series, when he hit .583 and stroked five doubles against the New York Yankees, including a walk-off run-scoring double in the 11th inning of Game 3.
For the regular season, though, Mathis hit a meager .211 in 84 games. Napoli, in contrast, hit .272 and slugged 20 home runs in 114 games.
“My offensive numbers weren’t that great,” acknowledged Mathis, 26. “The defense was a big factor in the reason I won that [arbitration] case.”
Still, defense is the hallmark of the Angels and Manager Mike Scioscia, which is why the former Dodgers catcher continues to split the role behind the plate.
If Mathis’ hitting improves, so be it, Scioscia said, but “we want him to reach that potential without taking away what he does behind the plate. We won last year because of what these guys did behind the plate, not what they did with the bat.”
But that doesn’t mean Mathis doesn’t want to get better with the bat.
“There are offensive goals that I have,” he said. “You always want to contribute to the team other than defensively.”
But once in a game, Mathis is in his element.
“I just like being there for every pitch,” he said. “I love playing the infield and I still love taking ground balls. As a catcher, you’re in every pitch and it’s never a dull moment.”
Angels starting pitcher Scott Kazmir says many factors go into making Mathis a good catcher.
“You want to have 25 guys just like him. He loves the battle, he’s a workhorse. You feel confident whenever he’s behind the plate. Anything he says, you listen,” Kazmir said, adding that all the Angels’ pitchers know this about Mathis. “If he wants to call time out and go talk to you, it’s for a good reason.”
Sciosica said Mathis not only has “a terrific arm,” but toward the end of last season “he was much more consistent with his throws, and he can control the [opposition’s] running game as well as anyone in the league.”
In 657 innings with Mathis catching last year, Angels pitchers had a 3.99 earned-run average. They had a 4.86 ERA in 758 innings with Napoli catching.
Mathis said his catching skill always has reflected one main factor: hard work.
“I just wanted to be the best at it, and work my tail off,” he said. Even in high school, “I wanted to be the best at anything I did, whether it was soccer, football or shortstop or pitching, which I didn’t even like.”
Mathis’ hitting surge in last year’s ALCS also might carry over to this season and help him lose the reputation for being a relatively easy out, Scioscia said.
“I think his confidence is higher because of what he did in the playoffs,” Scioscia said.
But doesn’t playing part time undermine that goal?
“No excuses,” Mathis said. “You’ve got to get into a rhythm either way. The No. 1 thing is to be consistent when you do get in there.”
Regardless, defense will always come first with the Angels, he said. “It’s just the way it is.”
Times staff writer Mike DiGiovanna contributed to this report.