It didn’t seem like a big deal, at the time, when Matt Wieters missed a late-April contest because of forearm soreness. He returned to the lineup for a few games, then sat out twice more with what the club began to call elbow soreness. Less than a week into May came the report that he was scheduled to visit Dr. James Andrews, who would examine the results of an MRI on the Baltimore Orioles backstop’s elbow. Dr. Andrews determined that Wieters wasn’t a candidate for elbow-ligament replacement surgery shortly thereafter.
Meanwhile, Wieters returned the lineup and played in four of five games, all of them as the DH. He was unable to serve the team behind the plate because the ailment affects his ability to throw, but early indications were that it doesn’t hamper him at the dish. He also took ground balls at first base on at least one occasion as the O’s weighed their options. It was worthwhile to Baltimore to lose some flexibility on the roster as long as Wieters could hit, but entering play on May 11, he was hitless in his last 10 at-bats. They’d obviously determined that keeping him active was no longer in their or his best interests, so he headed to the disabled list.
Wieters, 28, was in the midst of what appears to be a long-awaited breakthrough campaign, with a .308 average and five home runs. It’s reasonable to doubt whether the switch-hitting catcher would maintain that rate of production, given the four disappointing seasons he’d had after his 2009 debut and prior to 2014, however. He has been known to have a serious split disadvantage, something Blake Murphy examined a bit last October before going, in March, with his gut to predict a breakout. Lifetime, Wieters is a .280/.340/.490 hitter against left-handed hurlers but just a .248/.312/.397 hitter against righties, the handedness he obviously faces much more often.
Wieters’ splits have long contained some interesting inconsistencies, however, at least to me. He’s displayed the kind of indicators against right-handed pitchers that we associate with better performance in the batting average and on-base columns, and vice versa regarding southpaws. Perhaps he’s more aggressive or more confident, or both, against lefties. He’s clearly hit them harder throughout his career, regardless of his result in batting average. I don’t know, so I’d guess that he’s naturally a right-handed hitter, and swinging from the other batter’s box is something at which he’s worked much harder.
Which doesn’t mean that he can’t be successful as a left-handed batter. Clearly, at times, including his stay in the minors, Wieters has been, and those times include 2014. His lifetime line-drive rate against right-handers is a bit better than his mark against lefties; he may not truly drill the ball against northpaws, but between his plate discipline and batted-ball distribution against them, he’s in position to achieve respectable rates in such scenarios. His rates on balls in play this season suggest that he’s on pitchers of either handedness.
Wieters’ work while donning the tools of ignorance has become top-notch and steady, but he’s been a somewhat slow starter at the plate for much of his career. Obviously, given the way his 2014 campaign has begun, he’d be in excellent position for it to be his best yet offensively. Again, this year, we see that his ISO against RHPs is markedly lower than his ISO against LHPs, so he’s just been doing his best to be more than adequate against them. But even with some negative regression against right-handers, some positive regression against the other handedness would neutralize a bit of those corrections.
All this is moot if Wieters misses the rest of the season, of course. And, frankly, it seems probable that he will. More is at play than the costs versus benefits for this season. The organization has discussed a long-term contract with the Scott Boras client here and there, but neither party has gone at it strongly, and that’s assuredly on hold now. Wieters would hit free agency for the first time in his career after the 2015 season, so his camp is likely exceedingly conscious of his health in the long run.
Wieters became eligible to return from the DL on Monday, although he was never anticipated to be ready by then. He was told to wait at least two weeks before he could throw again, but Wednesday will mark three, and he’s not ready to pick up a baseball yet. He has yet to be designated a candidate for Tommy John surgery, but it’s expected to become an option if the catcher can’t throw by July 1; he’ll contemplate the procedure sooner if he feels like he’s not making progress, according to Buck Showalter. If Wieters opts for the procedure, the club would like him to have enough time to be ready for the 2015 season – as would he, surely.
Still, there have been positive signs. Wieters had a platelet-rich plasma injection the day after he hit the disabled list. He told the media last week that he’s noticed daily improvement. He sounds optimistic about the likelihood that he’ll test his right arm. If he does, he and the club would develop a timetable for his potential return.
The O’s are hedging their bets, though. They traded southpaw reliever Troy Patton to the San Diego Padres for Nick Hundley this past weekend. Showalter told the team’s official site that the transaction isn’t a sign of what’s going to happen with their franchise backstop, but the organization understandably felt that it needed insurance at the position. The former Friar is a low-cost option and figures to become Baltimore’s primary catcher because of his historically plus work behind the dish. Steve Clevenger, a left-handed batter, is a liability back there.
Once the dust settles, the Orioles are likely to go with Hundley and Clevenger, obviously, at least until they learn Wieters’ fate. Clevenger’s tiny AL-only window has closed. It’s almost certainly too late for those in AL-only leagues, but Wieters owners should have tossed or be willing to toss plenty of FAAB at Hundley to bring him aboard as their rest-of-season fallback, just like the real club did. Those in two-catcher mixed leagues of 15 teams, probably shallower, have a new candidate for one of their merry-go-round spots, too.
The right-handed hitter is a career .238/.295/.389 performer but has produced two seasons (2010 and 2011) with a WRC+ of greater than 100 in more than 300 plate appearances. Hundley has hit fly balls at about a 40% clip in his career, and 9.4% of his flies have ended up as souvenirs. It should be noted that his lifetime ISO on the road (.130) is notably worse than it is at home (.172). He’ll probably be happy to leave PETCO Park (2013 RHB park factor: 93) and the NL West for Camden Yards (107) and the AL East, where a few other RHB-friendly stadiums reside, however. He’s obviously thrilled just to have the opportunity to play again. Hundley owners may need to be patient, because, as he’s stated, his first order of business is to learn a new pitching staff.
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