Can Wieters put it together?
That slash line (BA/OBP/SLG) is what PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus’s Projection system declared Matt Wieters would bat as a rookie in 2009; the best catcher in baseball, Mark Texeira as a backstop. Of course, not all projections were so optimistic, ZIPS (available at FanGraphs) projected that Wieters would hit .274/.352/.439. That was the low end of the range of projection. It was offered that by many that Matt Wieters would be the best offensive catcher in baseball the day he stepped onto the field in the Major Leagues. As Ryan Glass at Fangraphs wrote, “at worst, it seems like he will be a top 5 offensive catcher next year”.
Matt Wieters has not lived up to that lofty offensive expectation. The christened “Joe Mauer with power” has grown to be excellent behind the plate, but merely average beside it.
His rookie year, he hit .288/.340/.412; well below PECOTA’s lofty forecast, but a league average line from a rookie catcher in the AL East; facing the pitching staffs of Boston and New York was still quite impressive. His overall line was brought down quite a bit by his struggles from the right side of the plate. Wieters’s overall batting lines, as well his numbers from each side of the plate in his first three seasons (see the figure below). Note OPS+ is adjusted for park effects and league averages to show how a hitter’s line is relative to league average (100 = average; >100 is above average; <100 is below average).
In 2009 and 2010, Wieters performed as a league average hitter, or slightly above from the left side of the plate, and he produced a line equivalent to former Oriole Brandon Fahey from the right side. This year, those splits have been reversed. Could the turn around from the right side of the plate be for real? Could the decline from the left be a mirage?
Let’s look at Wieters’s line drive, ground ball, and fly ball rates for the last three years. Line drives are the most likely to turn into hits (and specifically into extra base hits), fly balls are more likely to go for extra bases and ground balls tend to end up as hits more, but not for power. I’ve also included the percentage of fly balls that go for homeruns, and batting average on balls in play. A normal batting average on balls in play is .300, but can vary quite a bit for hitters (less so for pitchers).
A couple things seem clear from the above chart. In 2011, Wieters has been unusually lucky from the right side of the plate, and unusually unlucky from the left side. His rates in 2011 from the left compare favorably with those from 2010, yet his Batting Average on Balls in Play is 41 points lower. His line drive rate from the right is the highest of his career, and while his HR/FB and Babip both seem unsustainable, some of the improvement could be genuine.
Hardball Times has a tool that calculates Expected Batting Average on Balls in Play (xBABIP). Using this tool, gives Wieters an expected .315 BABIP from the left, and a .321 BABIP from the right side.
If Wieters had hit in normal luck, his individual, and cumulative lines, would be as follows:
Wieters’s adjusted OBP of .361 would be 5th among MLB catchers with at leat 300 plate appearances (he is currently 9th) and his adjusted SLG would be 3rd (currently 7th). Still not quite to the level expected of him, but a much closer approximation. Adjusted for luck, Wieters quickly becomes the third most productive offensive catcher in baseball, after only Alex Avila and Brian McCann in 2011.
Of course, offense is only part of the story. The aspect of Wieters’s game that has not disappointed is his exceptional defense. Even with his middle offensive numbers, Wieters’s defense has contributed to him rankings as the third most valuable catcher in the game according to total WAR. He has been worth 3.1 wins above replacement according to Fangraphs (behind 3.5 for Brian McCann and 4.9! for Alex Avila). Wieters has been the best defensive catcher in the game according to Fangraphs, worth 9 runs above an average catcher, and Beyond the Box Score (5.7 runs). It isn’t only advanced statistical analysis that rates Wieters’s defense so highly, a recent Baseball America of all 30 managers declared Matt the best defensive catcher in the sport.
Even if Wieters never becomes the offensive force many of us thought he would, his gold glove defense makes him one of the most valuable properties in the game. If Wieters’s gains are legitimate adjustments – rather than chance – 2011 could be something of a breakout year, just one clouded in poor luck. He may never be Joe Mauer with power, but he may yet become the best catcher in Major League Baseball.
Footnote - fun with WAR (or, the Orioles have been how bad for HOW long!?)
The best single seasons the Orioles have gotten from centerfielders in the last ten years belong to Corey Patterson and Luis Matos (3.6 and 3.5 WAR – although Adam Jones may eclipse them both this year with 3.3 through August 24th). Every other team in baseball has gotten at least one 3.6+ year out of centerfield. Corey Patterson. It says quite a bit when the best performer at a position is also a symbol (one of many) for what is wrong with the team.