Whicker: Diamondbacks’ Jeff Mathis still a pitcher’s best friend

LOS ANGELES — Those who find truth in formulas never understood Jeff Mathis, or his continued employment.

How can you hold down a baseball job when you don’t hit? And why is he playing when nobody wants him on a fantasy team?

Mathis has just put in his 11th major league season. His career OPS is .565, several rungs below the Mendoza Line for that statistical amalgam.

Yet he started the National League wild-card game in Phoenix on Wednesday, and he started Game 1 of the Division Series on Friday.

In a game gone drunk on offense, Mathis has created a one-man niche. He is the ace-catcher.

In Arizona he works with Zack Greinke, who left the Dodgers to sign a $206 million deal two years ago. In 2016 Greinke was 13-7 with a 4.27 ERA and a 1.273 WHIP (walks and hits, per innings pitched). That rose from a league-leading 1.66 ERA and 0.844 WHIP with the Dodgers in ‘15, when Greinke was runner-up for the Cy Young Award.

This season the Diamondbacks signed Mathis. One of his duties was catching Greinke’s starts. Mathis broke his hand on Aug. 22 and didn’t return until Sept. 30, but for the season Greinke was 17-7 with a 3.20 ERA and a 1.072 WHIP.

Mathis’ navigational skills are just part of it. He threw out 42.4 percent of runners attempting to steal a base this season, a career-high,. He was a first-round pick by the Angels in 2001 and was in the big leagues by 2007. They thought he would hit. He never really did, except for a memorable playoff against the Yankees in 2009.

Mathis was the defensive catcher and Mike Napoli the big hitter who sometimes caught, and the fantasy leaguers practically rioted whenever Mike Scioscia wrote Mathis into the lineup.

“I was lucky to be around a lot of great pitchers there,” Mathis said, “and to learn a lot about that side of catching from Mike. Ever since then I’ve been blessed to find some teams that put a lot of stock into what I did.”

Most of the top starters are certified divas, creatures of routine and unshakable believers in their own methods. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was fondly discussing the “crazy starters” in his clubhouse, and when Rich Hill was asked about a hitting game among the pitchers, he laughed and said, “I’ll ask (Clayton) Kershaw, but not tonight.”

Greinke has a variety pack of pitches and, as A.J. Ellis used to point out, is liable to switch plans mid-game. In many ways he’s ideal for a thinking catcher like Mathis.

“It goes back to the preparation you put in before the game,” Mathis said, “and with Zack we’re always communicating in the dugout.”

Mathis was known for his behind-the-scenes work with Jose Fernandez in Miami. Fernandez was 34-18 in his two healthy full seasons. Those were 2013 and 2016. He was 20 when he got to the big leagues, the livest wire in the clubhouse, a prodigy with no filter.  Mathis sometimes felt more like his sergeant-at-arms than his catcher.

“You usually knew what he was thinking,” Mathis said. “We’d have some differences of opinion. He loved to throw that slider because he had a great one, but sometimes I’d encourage him to mix it up. There were a few arguments. But he was a great guy and a great talent.”

“Was,” because on the morning of Sept. 26, 2016, Mathis was in his condo brushing his teeth, with a day game upcoming. His parents had come down and were spending the weekend. His wife Jenna got the text. Fernandez had died in a boating accident the night before.

It was the sort of illogical shock that had hit Mathis in 2009, when Nick Adenhart had gone six nice innings at Angel Stadium in his fourth major league start. The next morning he learned Adenhart, 22, had been killed by a drunk driver. Mathis put Adenhart’s baseball card in a plastic holder and still carries it with him.

Mathis is part of a three-catcher rotation at Arizona, with Chris Iannetta and Chris Herrmann. There is nothing guaranteed after this season, but one assumes Mathis will be back to help Greinke deliver on his investment.

Afterward?

“I’d never turn down an opportunity to stay in this game,” Mathis said, “whether it’s managing or instructing. I’m just enjoying what I’m doing now. I tell our younger guys that these playoffs are pretty special, that it doesn’t happen every year. It hasn’t happened for me since 2009, so it’s time to make the most of it.”

If pitching is still 90 percent of baseball, Mathis fits into the pie chart somewhere.

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