Still in shock after watching the Orioles take five of six from the Yankees and Sox, I figure it's time to start digging into the particulars of the 2012 season. It's still about four weeks too early, in my mind, to get too attached to a narrative, but let's be honest -- O's fans haven't had excitement like this in a long time and there is no shame in basking in the wins a little prematurely.
Over the next two weeks we hope to tick through some of the key components to Baltimore's hot start (certain players and stats) in order to make a determination as to whether these are trends are likely to continue. We start with the player Camden Depot highlighted as the contributor fans should be most excited about entering 2012: Matt Wieters.
Who: Matt Wieters
What: fWAR and rWAR both on pace for approximately 9.25
Buying or selling: Buying
Discussion: Let's clear-up right away that it is highly unlikely Wieters hits the 9.25 WAR mark this season (only nine position players in all of baseball topped the 7.0 rWAR mark in 2011, none topping 8.4). So "buying" isn't buying the 9.25 pace, but Wieters can absolutely be one of the ten most valuable position players in baseball this year. For comparison's sake, in 2011 Wieters was worth 4.6 wins above replacement according to Baseball-Reference.com (rWAR) and 5.0 wins above replacement according to Fangraphs.com (fWAR). For purposes of this discussion, we will focus on rWAR, as that presents us with the largest discrepancy between current pace and last year's performance.
Defensively, Wieters continues to shine. He displays soft hands, quick feet side-to-side, and works well to gameplan, calling an effective game much more often than not. His catch-and-throw skill set remains among the best in game, showing easy plus-plus arm strength with accuracy. With 37% of would-be basestealers caught in 2011, Wieters was second to only Diamondback's backstop Miguel Montero (40%) among catchers logging more than 82 games. Thus far in 2012, Wieters continues to mow down runners, currently at a 44% clip. Additionally, he fields his position well, particular receiving throws from the outfield, handling your typical 'tweener hops with ease while blocking the plate.
The big jump in value this year has been at the plate. From a scouting perspective, the biggest change has been Wieters patience. His approach was advanced, even as a prospect, but has really shone through over the Birds' first 28 games. Wieters has better tapped into a selectively aggressive approach at plate, laying-off more borderline pitches, and charging into the ball with more violence during hitter's counts. While the statistical sample size is too small to provide us adequate ammo for a decisive report, a cursory glance generally matches-up my scouting observations.
According to pitch f/x, as compared to 2011, Wieters has generally maintained his contact rate on pitches in zone (85.4% against 87.9%) and out of the zone (81.6% against 82.2%), and has maintained his swing rate on pitches in the zone (66.9% against 65.3%). Where pitch f/x shows the greatest change is on swing rate on pitches out the zone, where Wieters has cut down to 22.2% from 32.3%. Again, the sample size is small, just 28 games into the season, but this matches with my scouting observations.
On batted balls his LD%, FB%, GB% and IFH% are all within 1% of his 2011 rates, and his GB/FB rate in 2012 is 1.10 versus 1.12 in 2011. His BABIP has climbed to .309 from .276 in 2011, which on the surface might indicate that Wieters has been a little lucky. Keeping in mind the backdrop that batters can more directly impact their own BABIP than can pitchers, and noting the improvement in selection of pitches to attack, it could very well be that we are witnessing Wieters identifying a BABIP baseline more in line with his natural talent. It would not surprise me to see Wieters maintain a BABIP around .300 for the remainder of the season -- no small feet considering his "20" speed on the scouting scale (bottom of the barrel) all but eliminates infield hits from the equation.
Where I'd expect to see the biggest drop-off is in the homeruns. Right now Wieters is on pace to hit around 40 homeruns over the course of the 2012 season, assuming health and rest on par with the first 28 games. That is dramatically higher than what you would expect from a player with his power tool (I graded as a "60" as a prospect, estimating around 25+ homerun potential). Again, in a small sample size, the numbers seem to back-up the scouting. Thus far, Wieters has a HR/FB rate of 24.1% -- an incredibly high number. For comparison, the 2011 homerun champion Jose Bautista hit 43 dingers with a HR/FB rate of 22.5% and a FB rate of 47% (compaired to Wieters' FB rate of around 38% throughout his entire MLB career). Wieters isn't going to hit 40 homeruns, but that HR/FB rate could stay up around 17-18%, considering the improved selective aggression he is showing in 2012, which could lead to around 20 to 23 more big flies over the remainder of the season.
Summary: Matt Wieters is for real, and if Baltimore can stay in contention in 2012 he is the AL MVP without question. He is among the best defensive catchers in the game, and is now establishing himself as not only one of the best offensive catchers, but one of the best middle-of-the-order bats in all of baseball. Expect some backslide as the season takes it's toll on Matt's big body, but make no mistake -- this is what the beginning of a 7.0-7.5 rWAR season looks like.