A wRC+ around 100 is pretty, pretty good for a catcher, but in baseball most backstops fall into one of two categories: bat-first or glove-first. (Excepting Buster Posey, Russell Martin, Salvador Perez and maybe Francisco Cervelli.) If your bat is average or below average as a catcher, it's likely that you're on the roster for your arm and/or your pitch framing abilities. In rare cases, such as Josh Thole, you're on the roster for your ability to catch a certain pitch. Washington's Wilson Ramos is a bat-first catcher. Boston's Christian Vazquez is a glove-first catcher.
Matt Wieters, at this stage of his career, is neither. And that doesn't mean he's useless trash; many teams have worse situations than a ~100 wRC+ catcher with deteriorating defensive skills on their hands. But the other day I was listening to Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller talk about The Extra 2% Rays on their excellent daily podcast, Effectively Wild, and it got me thinking about the Oriole's catching situation. Lindbergh and Miller were discussing the market inefficiencies and radical strategies the impoverished Rays used to realize that extra 2%, and one strategy they brought up was punting offense for elite defense at the catcher position. Just look at some of the names that Tampa Bay has employed to catch over the last few years: Rene Rivera, Jose Molina, Jose Lobaton, Ryan Hanigan, Hank Conger, Kelly Shoppach. Those guys swing twigs at the plate but each of them rank near the top in advanced catching metrics.
Ever since the hype train arrived in 2009, Wieters has started behind the plate whenever he's been healthy. It hasn't even been a question really. From 2011-2013, he led all catchers in number of pitches received. He had tons of potential, a plus arm, and graded as an OK pitch framer. He's still playable now, but with the ridiculous firepower of the 2016 O's lineup, would Baltimore be better off taking a page from the Rays' book and giving more at-bats to a catcher who might be an offensive black hole but will make up for it with caught base stealers and extra called strikes?
I presented that as a hypothetical, but the O's already have just the guy for this experiment, and his name is Caleb Joseph. After suffering a horrific injury in May, Joseph was recalled on June 30 and slid back into his back-up role behind Wieters. It would no doubt be an offensive downgrade, but Joseph doesn't even need to be average at the plate to be a net improvement over Wieters.
His .409 OPS over 75 at-bats this season has been a huge disappointment after a promising 2015 campaign in which he smacked 16 doubles and 11 homers in just 100 games. Most of his offensive struggles this year are due to a .214 BABIP that is due for a rebound, and a sudden change in his batted ball profile.
Goodbye fly balls, hello ground balls. Caleb Joseph is still a fly ball hitter, and his elevated 11.1 IFFB% indicates that he's trying hard to get under the ball but not squaring it up right. ZIPS projects him to post a .640 OPS going forward, compared to Wieters' projected .734 OPS. If, for the purpose of this experiment, we assume he gets regular playing time, Joseph it's not unreasonable to think Joseph could finish closer to his .693 OPS from last season.
Now, here's the stuff that needs to convince you, Buck Showalter, and Dan Duquette that Joseph can more than close that offensive gap with his defense.
The Pitch Framing
It's a relatively new field of research, but Matthew Carruth provides a sortable table of pitch framing metrics at his excellent site StatCorner. At the basis of all framing metrics lie two stats that are super intuitive: zBall% and oStr%.
- zBall% is the percentage of pitches caught within the strike zone that are called balls. The lower the zBall% the better - you're getting the strikes you should get. The average zBall% in 2012 was 14.5%.
- oStr% is the percentage of pitches caught outside the strike zone that are called strikes. The higher the oStr% the better - you're getting the strikes you shouldn't get. The average oStr% in 2012 was 7.2%.
Carruth uses these two stats to create an metric called +Calls, which is the number of extra called strikes a catcher is responsible for cumulatively. There's also PerGame, which is like +Calls but on a per game basis. If it sounds simple, that's because it is. The complex part that leads to some error is the fact that the strike zone is tough to define rigorously for the purposes of statistical analysis as it changes game to game, even hitter to hitter.
There has not been too much research into the stabilization point of catcher framing metrics, but Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs, who has written a bunch about the topic, estimates it takes around 1,000 - 2,000 receptions to get a good idea of the talent.
Here is how Joseph stacks up against Wieters over their careers:
Over the past three years, Joseph has gotten 168 extra strikes called for his pitchers. Wieters has "lost" 128 strike calls for his pitchers. This graph makes it look like Joseph's skills are deteriorating, but if we look at the per game stats, a clearer picture emerges.
Among catchers with at least 1,000 receptions this season, Joseph's 1.41 PerGame mark ranks sixth in baseball. His 11.4 zBall% is particularly impressive, trailing only Yasmani Grandal, Kevin Plawecki, and Buster Posey. His 9.0 oStr% is also in the top ten.
Here is Joseph getting a called strike for Kevin Gausman on a borderline breaking ball around the outside edge:
Wieters, meanwhile, has been bad to awful. Most troubling is his oStr%, which ranked dead last among catchers with at least 4,000 receptions in 2015 and has been below average since 2012.
I can't claim to have done enough research to be able to quantify the impact that +2.51 extra called strikes per game makes, but given the seemingly unsolvable struggles of the starting rotation, the Orioles should be open to trying out any solution. Especially one that doesn't require making a trade in an extreme sellers market.
Wieters never boasted elite arm strength, but his CS% was among the league leaders from 2011 to 2013 and I think the perception of his arm strength today has been skewed by that stretch. His arm started to decline in 2013, and he hasn't been the same since undergoing Tommy John in 2014.
Then there's Joseph, who led the AL with a 40.4 CS% in 2014, and his 33.6 CS% from 2014-2015 ranks fifth in baseball. Joseph's track record isn't very long, but he's actually the same age as Wieters. He took six years to get the majors and if you fold in his minor league track record, there's no reason to think the arm isn't legit.
The Orioles are not the Rays, but sometimes small-market strategies make sense for high-payroll teams. With Davis, Machado, Trumbo, Schoop, and Jones slugging the lights out in the middle of the lineup, Baltimore is in a great position to sacrifice a marginal amount of offense for a potentially huge gain in catcher defense that could trickle down to partially address the team's greatest weakness.