Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Matt Wieters has arrived

Before there was this kid named Bryce, there was Matt Wieters. The past is always a bit murky, but it seemed in 2009 that Matt Wieters was the most highly anticipated rookie of his era. There is a remembrance of outrage when the Orioles gave homage to the almighty dollars clock and sent him to Triple-A to start the 2009 season after he has mashed his way through Double and Triple-A ball in 2008. And sure enough, the Orioles brought Wieters up after the clock allowed the Orioles another season of Wieters control. 

And Matt Wieters did not disappoint in his first 96 games for the Orioles in 2009. He wasn't gangbusters, but his more than half a season seemed to hold promise that he was the real deal. By 2010, Wieters had established himself as the number one catcher for the Orioles and sure enough, he played 130 games for his first full season. But the season was a disappointment.

Wieters only batted .249 that year with an on-base percentage of only .319. Wieters only slugged .377. He seemed like kind of a dud. Another young catcher named Posey came along in 2010 and Wieters lost his title of most promising young catcher in the game. There was little buzz about Wieters coming into the 2011 season. His team, the Orioles were perennial losers and Wieters seemed like a symbol of all that had gone wrong in that organizations front office.

But a funny thing happened in 2011. Matt Wieters became a star. He made the All Star team. He won a Gold Glove. His OPS+ was 113 as he hit 22 homers. Being that he played for the Orioles, a team that finished a faraway last place in the AL East, his season was pretty much overlooked. And since he is a switch hitter and because he did not do much against right-handed pitching (as a left-handed batter), he still finished with only a .262 batting average with an on-base percentage of .328. Those overall numbers made him look sort of average.

And batting left-handed was a problem. Against left-handed pitching, Wieters had an OPS of 1.124 against southpaws. But since there are more right-handed pitchers in baseball, he had many more plate appearances as a left-handed batter and his OPS against them of only .662 dragged his overall numbers down.

New research into what catchers do behind the plate besides throwing out base runners and fielding bunts showed that Wieters had really developed into a fine catcher. He is rated excellent and among the best in the game at blocking pitches in the dirt, and his framing pitching skills rated above average. When you put all the numbers together, Wieters was worth 5.2 wins last season, good enough to make him the third most valuable catcher in the game behind Alex Avila and Yadier Molina.

Wieters has started 2012 with a bang. His current triple slash line sits at .344/.462/.750. And what is so impressive with his start is that he is mashing right-handed pitching. He is still hitting left-handers as a right-handed batter (.889 OPS against them). But he is now killing right-handed pitching (1.279). In past season, you were not really afraid of Matt Wieters with runners on base. This season is a whole new ballgame. You do not want him at the plate with runners on base. Not only is Matt Wieters a great catcher, he is now an offensive threat.

It is very impressive to follow Wieters' numbers over his career and to see the progression. Wieters' strikeout rate has improved every season. The progression: 22.3 percent, 18.5 percent, 15.2 percent and this year, 10.6 percent. The numbers also show a progression on his ability to handle the curve and change up. He hit two homers last night. One was on a sharp curve and the other on a change up.

His fast start may not be a fluke either. His BABIP is only .292. That leads one to believe that he can continue to hit at a high caliber and has arrived at a new level of production and potency. And while his defensive skills had already risen Wieters to the third most valuable catcher in baseball in 2011, if he has as good an offensive season as he is displaying thus far, he may leap to the top of the heap as the best catcher in the game today. And the best news is that he has arrived at this level at the age of 26. His best baseball is ahead of him.

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