13 February 2015

A Wholly Unscientific Look at Matt Wieters's Defense Post-Tommy John

Before I get into this, I should stress that — as the title states — this is an unscientific article. As such, it shouldn't have any huge effects on anyone's appraisal of Matt Wieters, much less for the Orioles in 2015 overall. Unlike erstwhile Depot contributor Stuart Wallace, I don't study medicine, nor do I have any experience with injury analysis. I simply wish to compare Wieters's plight to those of players who have dealt with similar adversities.

In the campaigns preceding 2014, Matt Wieters had one of the better arms in the majors: From his debut in 2009 to 2013, he accrued 16 rSB, the most in the American League. Gunning down one in every three attempted base stealers, he provided as much value as he could behind the dish.

In the early going of last year, he began to show signs of wear. Of the twelve men who took off against him, eleven arrived safely; had he compiled enough innings to qualify, every other major leaguer would have topped that rate. He didn't qualify, though, because his season went from bad to worse: A damaged ligament in his right arm sent him under the knife, and put his future in doubt.

Many pitchers have undergone Tommy John surgery, and many people have written of its effects. (Their findings have tended to contradict each other.) But what about the hitters who have done the same? To the best of my knowledge, only two people have looked into the latter group: Jeff Zimmerman at RotoGraphs, and wafflechip27 at the FanGraphs Community blog. Both of those looked at hitting performance, though; I'd like to focus on the other side of the ball — throwing. What does the operation's history tell us about players' defense before and after it?

Because very few position players have undergone Tommy John surgery, I had a very small sample size with which to work. From Jon Roegele's Tommy John surgery database, I found 24 catchers (Wieters included) who had it. Of them, a few — Matt Clark, Dustin Houle, Matt Reistetter, Andrew Knapp, and obviously Wieters — have had the surgery within the past year-plus, and thus haven't had enough time back. Moreover, 12 of them didn't play much prior to having the procedure. Thus, I limited my scope to the five who remained.

What did I find? Well, only two of the guys accumulated significant major-league innings both pre- and post-surgery, and both of them fared pretty well going forward:

Player Pre Innings Pre CS% Pre rSB Pre rSB/1000 Post Innings Post CS% Post rSB Post rSB/1000
Todd Hundley 5782.1 25.9% --- --- 2822.2 23.8% --- ---
John Baker 1538.0 19.4% -10 -6.5 1032.1 17.7% -3 -2.9

While neither Hundley nor Baker was particularly adept at throwing out runners after Tommy John, their rates of doing so didn't diverge much from their rates before it. Plus, they were of a similar age to Wieters when they had it done — Hundley was 28 (like Wieters), and Baker was 29. So this tells us that Wieters will come out of this as good as ever, right?

Well, no. Aside from the fact that two people don't exactly make for a large sample, this means of analysis has one fatal flaw: survivorship bias. By only looking at the catchers who made it back to the show, we get an incomplete picture. Instead, we should take into account all of the catchers who had major-league time beforehand, regardless of if they made it back or not. And bringing in the three other men changes the conclusions a little bit.

Ben Davis had 3631.1 innings and a 33.9% caught-stealing rate before falling victim at age 28. Returning to the minors the following year, he threw out a mere 20% of base stealers over the last five seasons of his career. Vance Wilson — he of the 2388.2 innings and 40% CS% across eight seasons — went under the knife shortly after turning 33. He would endure the surgery again a year later, and would only play 18 games at AA (in which runners went 20-for-20 against him). And Chris Coste, who owned a considerably more mediocre 22.1% clip in 1641.2 innings, took an early retirement once he went through the procedure (albeit as a 37-year-old). Taken together, these three detract from the relative optimism inspired by the previous two.

The ages of the five men (and the fact that, y'know, there were only five of them) obviously add some pretty significant caveats to this. Nevertheless, one shaky point remains: When a catcher has Tommy John surgery, his future value takes a hit. If Wieters hits the free agent market after 2015, will the Orioles bring him back? Considering the things I've learned in writing this, I'm not too sure.


Anonymous said...

One nice thing is that Wieters does not chew tobacco. Tobacco is associated with poor healing and a tendency to be injured again.

Statistics Don't Lie said...

Matt's defense is surely a large part of his value in free agency. If it has not rebounded well enough, he may sign a 1-year contract and try for a LT version after his stock improves.

I wonder if his value as a DH, or non-catcher (1B?) is enough to warrant a QO? A lot depends on his offensive performance in 2015, but at this juncture it seems pretty reasonable that he would accept a QO, IMO.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

I'm not sure Wieters is good enough offensively to warrant significant money as a DH or 1B. If he can't catch, that's a huge problem.

Unknown said...

Of all the impending FAs the Orioles have, Wieters is the one I feel will be least worth what he will eventually be paid.

Which could be an interesting article -- which impending Oriole free agent will be the best bargain?

Matt Kremnitzer said...

The injury, for now, is the scary part. Of the big two (Wieters and Davis), I find Davis to be the more risky investment. I'd feel a lot better about Wieters if he comes back and looks good in 2015.

Ryan Romano said...

Yeah, it's way too early to say for sure in that regard. We know Davis can hit either extreme offensively, and for now, I'd say that makes him the riskiest long-term move. With that said, if Wieters comes back and throws out runners like he did last year, he almost certainly won't be worth whatever he receives.

Anonymous said...

Given the O's history with injuries and risk avoidance even if Matt appears recovered very hard to seem them extend Matt in a very defined market (Martin, McCann, Molina) for catchers with Boras as his agent.

Let's hope he is well and helps the O's on the field leading to him being flipped mid year or a QO.

The same thing for Chris Davis. Risk aversion and/or Scott Boras lead me to the same conclusion that the best the O's will get is another year of Chris and a draft pick (or trade equivalent). Of course between Matt and Chris that frees another 20 million in salary for 2016.

Assuming DD is still around in 2016 (still fifty/fifty its Toronto) then we will see how much creativity and freedom he has with eleven free agents staring him in the face as the roster is currently configured.

It might be interesting to think how Billy Beane would do this because we are close to his level of turnover in the very near future.

Erik said...

I agree that Wieters, like all free agents, is likely to be overpaid because the downside risks are likely to be underestimated.

One factor to consider is what I think of as "stumbling around costs." (Coase would call them search costs.) How long until the Orioles get a catcher they are happy with, and how much time and money do they spend figuring it out?

I am not thrilled with what I have been seeing in the framing stats for Wieters. Right now, the actual act of catching pitches is underpaid when it is done really well. Who knows? Some day Rick Dempsey may make the Hall-of-Fame when it is fully appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Wieters has consistently demonstrated poor pitch-framing skills (albeit with superior pitch-calling & throwing).
I'm shocked this isn't a vocal priority of his considering his attention to all of the other details of catching.

Erik said...

Following up on Anonymous on February 18th, Wieters may have wanted to, but may have lacked the coaching that he needed. Players are funny that way. A coach that works for one aspect, does not work for another. Or the coach can coach an aspect for one player but not another.