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Matt Wieters Has Not Beaten Cancer With His Bat…Yet

Remember the excitement over Matt Wieters‘ debut only several years ago? The hype was so over the top, an entire website was created to list all of his “accomplishments” and “facts”. Now having logged 2,031 plate appearances with just a .327 career wOBA, it’s fair to say that Wieters has been a disappointment to many so far. He was also one for fantasy owners this season who hoped for that big breakout finally, but he earned just $10, ranking him 8th among catchers. Is this it or is the big breakout finally coming next season?

When Wieters was flying through the minor league levels, he showed excellent plate patience, drawing walks at a well above average clip, while making contact at a pretty respectable rate given his level of power. That level of power was outstanding at Double-A in 2008, but fell off at Triple-A the following season in a smaller sample. But, since he’s a catcher, it was still quite impressive.

Fast forward to 2012 and we immediately find a positive sign in his walk rate. After Wieters debuted with an uncharacteristic BB% of 7.3%, he has improved that to an above league average mark and now isn’t too far off his Triple-A rate. After enjoying a temporary surge in contact rate in 2011, he regressed back to his previous levels, but that is still an acceptable level and sits right around what he posted in the minors.

There are two important issues with Wieters. First is his BABIP and resultant batting average. His minor league batting averages of .345, .365 and .305 made us believe that he would hit for average, in addition to swatting many a long ball. In fact, he had been known as “Joe Mauer with power”. Well, those batting averages were propped up by some extremely high BABIP marks, none of which were lower than .352. When he debuted in 2009, he posted a .356 BABIP with the Orioles, right in line with his minor league history. His power was down, but he still managed to hit .288, hinting at .300 potential as soon as his power recovered, which many expected to be the following season.

Then things turned South. From 2010 through this past season, Wieters hasn’t managed to post a BABIP exceeding .287 and it has been in the .270 range for the past two years. He doesn’t have a tendency to pop up, he hit a healthy number of line drives last season, and he does not hit too many fly balls that simply find outfielders’ gloves. So what’s the problem?

We could start by looking at his O-Swing% and O-Contact%, both of which are above the league average. That means that he is swinging more frequently at pitches outside the zone and also making better contact with those pitches. In this case, it’s not such a good thing to be making contact because outside contact likely means weak contact. His Z-Contact% has been right around the league average, so he’s not benefiting at all from hitting strikes at a high frequency. This seems to be the best explanation I could find as to why his BABIP has been so poor these last few years. Only time will tell if this is something he can improve upon.

Moving onto his power, he is quickly becoming the power hitter we had envisioned when he was still just a top prospect. His HR/FB ratio hit a career high 15.5% this season, though his ISO was stuck in neutral, but still remained a solid .186. Here is his average home run plus fly ball distance data for his career:

  2009 2010 2011 2012
HR + FB Distance 287.7 293.8 287 282.9

Interestingly, the distance of his balls were pretty consistent from 2009-2011, even though his HR/FB ratio jumped from 8.4% in 2009 to 13.6% in 2011. And oddly, 2012 was a career low, which was paired with a career best HR/FB rate. The good news is that all the distances are solidly above the league average, so it seems pretty obvious that Wieters always possessed above average power and had no business posting HR/FB rates below 10%. Based on this data though, it would be tough for me to project further upside to this year’s HR/FB rate.

On the negative side, his ESPN Home Run Tracker data provides reason for pessimism. His average standard distances have been either at or well below the league average and 41% of his 2012 home runs were classified as “just enough”. This appears to be another data point to support the no further HR/FB rate upside in the near term claim.

Wieters does have some home run upside though, but it comes in the form of a rebound in FB% and the possibility he recaptures his 2011 contact skills. Personally, I am likely to project a slight regression in HR/FB ratio, but will still end up with something around 20 in the home run department. Catchers usually take longer to develop than other hitters as they focus on their defense, so a big breakout, if it does happen, might take some patience with Wieters.