C | 1B | 2B (1, 2) | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | DH | Bench | SP (1, 2) | RHRP | LHRP | Conclusion
As has been discussed in the series, and likely to be discussed again, the writers here at Camden Depot are taking time during October exploring how the Orioles performed in 2013 by position and what might be the best approach for that position for next season. It may seem peculiar to some to even consider getting rid of what conventional wisdom regards as a star player on a team that has active playoff ambitions. However, like most topics, I think it does not hurt to consider all options open.
With that in mind, I will be writing about the catcher position for the team. It is certainly a topic of great difference among many within the Orioles' fan base. Over the past season, I have heard on one end that Wieters is the biggest bust in baseball history and on the other far side I have heard that Wieters' exclusion from the All Star game only shows the unfair hatred shown for all things Baltimore. To perhaps, 98% of the fan base those two perspectives are somewhat comical as grand hyperbole. I will be discussing what lies in between those perspectives and that still leaves me with a great amount of ground to cover in a single post.
And, so, 2013 Happened
If you look at the 2013 season and only the 2013 season, it is difficult to come to the conclusion that Matt Wieters is an elite catcher. Below is a table listing all of the players who spent more than 50% of their playing time as a catcher and logged more than 300 plate appearances. The list is ordered from highest rWAR to lowest rWAR.
From that, we would conclude that Wieters was pretty horrible this year. We'd also conclude that two recent catchers held in high esteem (i.e., Alex Avila and Miguel Montero) were also horrible. I note that simply to give pause before we commit ourselves too readily to the statistical performance of one season. Furthermore, I'd like to illustrate exactly what went into that 0.4 rWAR as well as compare it to fWAR (Fangraph's version) where Wieters is assigned a performance of 2.3.
Baseball Reference's system for rWAR as well as Fangraphs' system for fWAR have batting components that are different from each other, but come to similar conlusions for offensive ability. Using batting and baserunning metrics, rWAR's components assign Wieters' offense as being worth 13 runs below what the average player would perform. Fangraphs uses different underlying metrics, but comes to a similar value of 12 runs below average. This looks pretty bad. However, it is much more difficult to catch than it does to hit, so catchers tend to hit worse. Scale Wieters' offense to catchers and you wind up with him being 4 runs worse than the average catcher or 16 runs better than the generic replacement level catcher. For Fangraphs, those numbers are 2 runs worse than the average catcher or 14 runs better than the generic replacement level catcher. In other words, both systems viewed his offense this past season as about average for all catchers. This includes backup catchers as well, so the average catcher is not a synonym with the average starting catcher. It was a bad offensive performance, but nowhere near catastrophic.
Where the two systems diverge is with respect to Wieters' defense. Baseball Reference uses Baseball Info Solutions which considers the ability of a catcher to throw out baserunners (with consideration of the pitcher), how well a player prevents passed balls, and "handling" that measures pitch framing and pitch calling. Pitch framing is fairly easy to measure with respect to whether balls are called strikes or strikes call balls. I am unsure how BIS measures pitch calling. This system thinks Wieters did well saving two runs over the average catching with respect to throwing runners out. However, he stunk with handling pitchers and put up twelve runs below average and was three runs below average with passed balls. What this means is that DRS thinks he had a very bad defensive season being thirteen runs below average.
Fangraphs does not consider pitching framing when they determine how well a catcher plays his position. What they do consider is how his arm is in throwing out baserunners. Additionally, the system takes into consideration how well a catcher does on pitches that tend to wind up being passed balls. The system uses the same arm metric as Baseball Reference does. The passed ball metric that Fangraphs uses is worth two runs above average. In total, this says Wieters is worth five runs above the average catcher for his defense. That is a difference of 17 runs between the two or about two wins.
Based on our initial work, I tend to think that the rWAR assessment might be closer to the truth than what we might see over at Fangraphs. The tally kept by Baseball Prospectus does not have Wieters in either the top five or bottom five. Being conservative, I think it is fair to say that Wieters likely had a below average defensive season to go along with his below average offensive season. Combine those two together and Wieters looked like a solid backup catcher closer to the rWAR of 0.4 than the fWAR of 2.3.
Where does this leave us for 2014?
I have mentioned before the future with respect to Matt Wieters. I have been a proponent of signing him long term. A major reason behind that is that he is a fringe first tier catcher who is capable of putting up seasons where he ranks as the best catcher in the game. A second reason behind that is basically the the scarcity of star caliber players on free agency as well as in trades. Basically, we know we have a good player who is in the middle of his career. It is difficult to find elite talent out in the market and that elite talent requires the team to out pay for talent to the point where other teams decide to go elsewhere. Nevermind, the history of the team where the Orioles have often offered more and we still declined (perhaps two winning seasons change that). All of this written, I have yet to really say anything specific about Matt Wieters.
With five seasons under his belt, Wieters' value has ranged a bit. He put in very good performances according to rWAR in 2009 and 2010. He then had a fringe MVP season in 2011 and an excellent season last year. This season, as mentioned previously, was awful. This was the first season where his offense was below average for a catcher and was the first year where his defense was measured as below average. This leads to the question as to whether we should regard 2013 as a harbinger for the future, an aberration in comparison to past performance, or a weighted inclusion as to what next year may bring.
Below is a table of some of the peripherals I look at when I assess a player. The only two you may not be familiar with are dLD and dFB, which are the average distances of those batted ball types.
The aspects here that stand out most are: (1) a different hit type distribution in 2013 vs. career, (2) decrease in fly ball distance of about 15 feet, and (3) a sizable drop in BABIP. I think all of these are tied together. That common bond would be fly balls. My guess is that for some reason we are seeing a flyball increase due to chance, a mechanical change in his swing, or Wieters trying to break shifts that are employed on him by going the other way when he should not on the pitch he is given.
|As L||As R|
As we can see, his right side splits look pretty similar, but his left side splits have radically changed this year. Here are two graphics:
In 2013, Wieters hit a great number of weak fly balls straddling the foul line. It makes me wonder if it is being pressed upon him by himself or Jim Presley to force going the other way and his swing simply cannot successfully accomplish that. It brings into question whether this forced going the other way with the ball helps or hurts the team. If this is what is happening, it seems to show that the conventional wisdom of going the other way might be pretty detrimental with the type of player Matt Wieters is.
With that in mind, I think this offseason might actually provide a situation where the team could secure Wieters at a price that might be less than (only slightly though) than what I suggested at the beginning of the season. The only thing that troubles me is the degree to which his pitch framing might be hurting his value. However, this is the first season that DRS has indicated that Wieters is poor at doing this. His ability has ranged from being excellent to being awful. The answer likely lies somewhere in the middle.
What else is out there?
There are five other starting quality catchers who have yet to be extended by their current clubs:
Brian McCann, Braves (30 years old)None of these are long term catching solutions. McCann and Saltalamacchia are two that would require at least a five year deal at a price likely twice what Wieters will see in arbitration and likely a million or more per annum more if Wieters was extended. In other words, Wieters might be had a 5 years and 60 MM whereas McCann and Salty are looking at something like 5 years and 60-80 MM with Salty on the near end and McCann on the latter. It would not be surprising to see Wieters hold out for that higher dollar amount. That all written, McCann's injury history is a concern of mine to the point where I think he should be playing a less intense position. Salty's success being so closely tied to his newfound ability to hit a league average batting average is something I hesitate to truly think is a true, newly established level of performance.
A.J. Pierzynski, Rangers (37)
Carlos Ruiz, Phillies (35)
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Red Sox (29)
Geovanny Soto, Rangers (31)
Beyond those two, you have Pierzynski, Ruiz, and Soto. All of them can be special and all of them are at a point in their careers where things can completely breakdown. If you think Wieters could bring back three or four prospects with maybe one of them becoming special then one of these guys might be worth a chance. However, the pull back on Wieters is likely a player that won't be ready to contribute in a meaningful way until this current playoff window is closed. The team is currently in a win now mode with players like J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, and Wei Yin Chen in perhaps the years where they will contribute most. It should give one pause as to whether ridding the team of Wieters would actually help the team in any way getting a championship.
With all of the above in mind, it is in the best interest of the team to keep Matt Wieters and give a great deal of thought to securing his services long term. I recognize many within the fan base are frustrated with him having never achieved becoming the player they were told he would be, which is a hitting wunderkind that would more than make up for his poor defense. Instead, the Orioles found themselves with a hitter who crushed the ball hitting right handed and got by from the left side as well as the added bonus of being a catcher who arguably is one of the best defenders in the game (with only this season's DRS suggesting otherwise). The player the Orioles have gotten instead is very valuable. That much has been obviously true over his career. Going by rWAR, he is already the best catcher the franchise has ever had. Playing next year at 28, he stands to have another four to five good years left in him.
Matt Wieters is part of a 2014 Orioles championship team.