The Baltimore Orioles are off to a hot start, and are currently leading the American League East by a game over Tampa Bay and New York. It almost certainly will not last — raise your hand if you think the Orioles’ pitching staff will end the year with their current 3.60 ERA — but at least it is a short period of fun for the fans. It is not simply that some Baltimore pitchers have gotten off to good starts. The Orioles currently have three hitters with a seasonal wOBA of around .450: outfielders Adam Jones (.447) and Nolan Reimold (.457), and also former future franchise savior Matt Wieters (.447). Jones and Reimold are surprises, of course, but this is exactly what one would expect from the rookie catcher after his domination of the minors.
Oh, wait, Wieters is actually in his fourth year in the majors. His current .308/.413/.641 slash line might be a bit higher than what was expected of him in his 2009 rookie debut, but without singling anyone out, it is not that much higher that some had him projected back then. We all know that 2012 is a small sample, but is there a sense in which Matt Wieters might finally be “arriving?” Only if you are one of those people who did not realize that he was an excellent player prior to this season.
I should be honest and say that I do not have a great concept of what the “average fan” (whatever that means) thinks of Wieters. I suspect many fans, while not thinking of him as a bust, think of him as a good role player who they thought could be something more. It should be admitted, too, that in earlier seasons his offense did not live up to expectations laid on him prior to his major league debut.
However, even if he was not exactly Lance Berkman with the ability to play good defense as a catcher (more on that in a minute), as some thought he would be, his offense was actually good for a catcher right from the start. A .330 wOBA in 2009 was a bit below average in the Orioles’ park (94 wRC+), but for a catcher, that was very good. His plate approach was a bit problematic — he had a below average walk rate and a lot of strikeouts, but again, he was a catcher and a rookie. While his approach improved a bit in 2010, regression from the previous season’s .356 BABIP caught up with him. I suspect that the frustrations with Wieters’ bat stem largely from the 2010 season and its .303 wOBA. Again, that would be okay for a catcher, but whatever his other virtues, Wieters was expected to be more than a guy who hit like a typical catcher.
The main culprit in the “disappointment” of Wieters’ 2009 and 2010 offense was his relative lack of power, (.124 and .129 ISO, respectively). In 2011, while his walk rate stayed about the same, his average on balls in play dropped again. The latter issue was mitigated by another year of improvement in Wieters’ strikeout rate. Wieters’ most significant improvement in 2011 as against prior seasons was his power, which went up to a .188 ISO, primarily fueled by 22 home runs. Still, a .339 wOBA (110 wRC+) is not on the level of that was expected of Wieters prior to his rookie year. He was expected to be more than a “good hitter for a catcher.”
If that is as far as one wants to go, one might have concluded that Wieters was an above average player with a good (not great) bat who was playing a premium position. But while catcher fielding is a difficult thing to quantify (although I am not sure we are much worse off there than we are with fielding in general), it is pretty clear that the Gold Glove voters got at least one thing right in 2011 in recognizing Wieters’ value behind the plate.
The simple catcher ratings I have done in the past showed Wieters to be the best defensive catcher in the American League in 2010 with respect to the cumulative value of catching base stealers, blocking pitches, and avoiding fielding errors. In 2011, the same basic method found him to be easily be best in baseball at about 15 runs above average. Other, more sophisticated methods also found Wieters to be among the best in the league at blocking pitches, controlling the running game, and to be at least average in pitch framing.
Considering his bat as projected prior to this year, Wieters was probably a three or four win player. Clearly above average, but not a superstar. However, once one incorporates his estimated fielding value, he is at the very least a four-win player, and the five wins he put up according to FanGraphs in 2011 may indeed be close to his current true talent.
It seems silly to say that Matt Wieters has “finally” arrived. I could go through the small sample of his 2012 start and pick things out and write things like “well, it’s a small sample, but if he keeps it up…” as happens so often early in the season on sabermetrics-friendly blogs. It seems more worth noting that even on the basis of his pre-2012 hitting performance, Wieters projected as every being about as valuable as Yadier Molina — Molina might have the better glove, but Wieters has the better bat (yes, I realize Molina is also off to an insanely hot start). Wieters is also about four years younger. Molina got five years and $75 million in the off-season.
Despite his hot 2012 start, Matt Wieters probably is not going to turn into the combination of Mike Piazza and Joe Mauer some thought he would be. However, I am pretty sure that if he was a free agent right now, he would get substantially bigger contract than Molina’s. He may not be world-historical, but Matt Wieters had already arrived as one of the best catchers in baseball, a star player and building block for the Orioles. If they do not have other materials to put around him, that is hardly his fault.