Cue up the Four Tops. “It’s the Same Old Song” with respect to the Angels’ catching situation.
Mike Napoli is hitting up a storm this spring and trying to work through some throwing issues. Jeff Mathis is catching and throwing superbly but struggling to find base hits.
Manager Mike Scioscia used familiar language on Friday morning when he was asked about his catchers and – specifically — if a spot on the 25-man roster can be carved out for third receiver Bobby Wilson, who is out of Minor League options.
“It’s the same as the last couple years,” Scioscia said. “It’s worked out that it’s been a split. I know those guys [Napoli and Mathis] have the ability to go out and catch 130 games each. Why they haven’t done it is because there have been some rough spots on the offensive or defensive end.”
He didn’t have to spell out which receiver had which flaws. It has been there for everyone to see.
Napoli came into camp feeling healthier than at any time in the past three years, and it has shown with his exceptional ability to crush balls and draw walks. If he ever gets enough at-bats, he’s capable of putting up huge power-production numbers, in the 30/100 range, with a .360 to .380 on-base percentage and .500-plus slugging mark.
Not many receivers can do that. The question is whether his defense will allow Napoli enough plate appearances to stay locked in, given that Scioscia continues to value defense first and Mathis clearly is the better catcher in every respect.
Mathis has been throwing lasers this spring, while Napoli has been unloading some changeups. Scioscia has seen improvement in recent days with Napoli.
“It’s definitely mechanics,” Scioscia said, identifying the source of Napoli’s throwing issues. “It’s related to moving forward, with a rhythm.”
Basically, to paraphrase another old catcher named Yogi Berra, Napoli is finding that you can’t think and throw at the same time. He’s trying to conceptualize his mechanics rather than just cutting it loose confidently.
“When he’s on, he’s a plus thrower,” Scioscia said. “When Jeff’s on, he’s plus-plus. Jeff has been throwing as well as he ever has.”
From glove to glove, as Scioscia puts it, Mathis can get the ball to second base on a steal attempt in 1.9 seconds. Napoli is in the 1.95 to 2.05 range.
“With a 1.9, glove to glove, not many guys are going to beat it,” Scioscia said.
Scioscia said he wants to keep Wilson, but it’s hard to see how that can happen unless the club carries 11 pitchers on Opening Day and has one of the three catchers available as a backup at first base for Kendry Morales.
Wilson has played some first base and so has Napoli, but that was in the Minor Leagues.
“Nap is focused on being in our catching depth,” Scioscia said. “Bobby has played some first base. It would be an easy switch for him. Ryan Budde’s also played some first base.
“They’re still going through that pitcher-catcher relationship of trying to work with everybody on the staff.”
If the Angels can’t find room for Wilson, he’ll have to be dealt in order to avoid losing him to waivers. The same applies to power-hitting outfielder Terry Evans, also out of Minor League options.
“You don’t want to lose players, obviously,” Scioscia said. “Those two guys we’re talking about, Wilson and Evans, are Major League players, no question about it.”
The question is whether they’ll be Angels, and that likely won’t be answered until the last few days of Spring Training. — Lyle Spencer
At the conclusion of Tuesday’s workout at Tempe Diablo Stadium, Angels manager Mike Scioscia held an impromptu hitting contest among his catchers.
With Scioscia serving up soft tosses, the receivers took their cuts. The prize for longest drive went, not surprisingly, to Mike Napoli when he unloaded a towering drive to left that bounced off a truck passing by on an access road beyond the trees at the back of an embankment.
“Nap killed it,” Scioscia said.
“He must not have gotten the memo,” Napoli said of the truck driver.
“Imagine what that guy was thinking,” Bobby Wilson said, “just driving by and then he hears something crash.”
Napoli, who said he hasn’t felt this good in the spring since his rookie year of 2006, is crushing balls in batting practice. Best buddy Jeff Mathis, meanwhile, is lashing line drives to all fields, hoping to maintain the stroke he carried through the postseason with five doubles among his seven hits in 12 at-bats.
Wilson also went deep against his manager, while Ryan Budde — arguably the team’s strongest individual — unloaded several bombs.
Scioscia routinely begins the day with a pre-game address that features a wide range of hilarious exchanges, usually involving young players asked to make unusual presentations. Roars can be heard outside the clubhouse on a daily basis, but the audience is sworn to secrecy.
What happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse.
They’re calling themselves “The Four Amigos,” making light of each other with inside digs in the familiar manner of lively, good-natured fraternity brothers.
Lately, Jeff Mathis has been catching most of the flak, some of it self-directed.
“I feel like I’m back in high school, catching seven innings,” Mathis said, grinning.
This is where Bobby Wilson comes in, having arrived as a Sept. 1 reinforcement along with Ryan Budde to provide depth at the catching position behind Mathis and Mike Napoli.
“I’m the middle innings guy,” Wilson said, smiling.
“I’m the closer,” added Napoli. “And he” – pointing to Budde, catcher No. 4 – “is the microwave. He heats everybody up.”
Manager Mike Scioscia loves his catchers, relating to them in ways he can relate to no other players for obvious reasons. He lived the life for many years and knows everything there is to know about it.
Scioscia has been pulling Mathis late in close games for pinch-hitters, largely because his offense hasn’t caught up with his brilliant defense this season.
Outgoing and personable, the fours catchers love this time of year when they’re all together. They spend six weeks in close quarters during Spring Training, and they’re reunited in September.
Napoli, Mathis and Wilson share Florida roots, while Budde is an Oklahoma native.
Napoli has been known to launch big flies, but he might not be as strong as Budde, who kills golf balls and occasionally drives a baseball as far as Napoli.
Wilson, as a hitter, uses the whole field and makes solid contact.
“We’ve got four Major League catchers,” Scioscia said. “These guys can all play at this level.”
Unfortunately, only one can play at a time – even if there are nights when as many as three manage to stay busy, with Budde on call.
If the Angels nail down another AL West title, Wilson could be on the postseason roster, giving Scioscia the option of holding back Napoli for late pinch-hitting duties. With one of the five starters going to the bullpen, a spot could open up for a third receiver if Scioscia wants to go in that direction.
Mike Napoli was beaming on Friday morning even before he saw the lineup card for the game against the Rockies featuring his name in the No. 4 slot as the Angels’ designated hitter.
Daybreak brought good news. Napoli woke feeling no pain in his right shoulder after testing it for the first time on Thursday since undergoing arthroscopic surgery in late October, cleaning up a little mess that had cost him a month of the second half.
“I threw 70, 75 feet, around 20, 25 times,” Napoli said. “It went well, and I’m not even sore today. I was a little worried how I’d feel when I got up, but it was fine, no pain.
“The last time I threw was the last game last season, so it’s been a while. I feel strong.”
Even if he’s not ready to cut loose with enough velocity to catch by the season opener on April 6, Napoli wants to make the 25-man roster as a DH until he’s ready to go behind the plate.
Manager Mike Scioscia has maintained that roster flexibility would go into that decision, which would force the club to carry a third catcher — Bobby Wilson or Ryan Budde — to back up Jeff Mathis.