Matt Wieters and the Curse of the Tall Catcher

Matt Wieters’ rookie PECOTA projection is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

I still have it in my possession. While the pages have yellowed in the 2009 Baseball Prospectus annual, Wieters’ .311/.395/.544 slash line is still something to behold. As a 22-year-old at Double-A Bowie, the Georgia Tech product slashed .365/.460/.625. He was the perfect prospect: switch-hitting catcher with power, on-base skills, and above average defense. “Mauer with Power” was the advertisement.

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Wieters of course never became that kind of offensive force. He has a career wRC+ of 97 and produced just an 88 wRC+ this past season. Baseball is very often a cruel game. Expectation can morph into resentment.

Still, this is a player with four All-Star berths. This is a player with pedigree. This is a switch-hitter with a strong throwing arm, who threw out 35% of base-stealers last year. His leadership receives high marks. So it’s somewhat surprising that he’s still available in his first taste of free agency.

Or perhaps it isn’t so surprising.

Wieters’ defense is likely more problematic to teams than his so-so bat. According to StatCorner’s framing leaderboard for last season, Wieters ranked 68th among catchers who received at least 1000 pitches, saving -7.3 runs compared to a league-average catcher.

In 2015, Wieters ranked 64th in framing, 8.6 runs below the average catcher.

In 2013, before injuring his elbow in 2014, he ranked 72nd (-10.4 runs above average).

The following video clips document two pitches Wieters received last summer that crossed the lower part of the zone as strikes, according to Statcast, but were called as balls. On both occasions Wieters’ glove appears to take the pitch out of the zone:

And again ….

Wieters hasn’t been an above-average framer since 2011, according to StatCorner. Baseball Prospectus’ framing metrics are more kind but they still rate Wieters as a below-average receiver every season since 2012.

Wieters’ troubles might be tied to his height. Pitches at the bottom of the zone are those that are most often framed successfully. Elite pitch-framing catchers like Jonathan Lucroy and Russell Martin have insisted that getting lower to the ground is key to creating the illusion that a pitch is better than it really is.

Of the top-10 framing catchers last season, eight stood between 5-foot-10 and 6-foot-1. Only Tyler Flowers (6-foot-4), and Jason Castro (6-foot-3) were close to Wieters in height. While there are always exceptions to the rule, perhaps in today’s game where framing is valued correctly – or is at least a significant consideration – being a tall catcher is something of a curse.

In 2014 and 2015, Flowers was the only catcher above 6-foot-2 in the top 10 of framing.

Consider the following heat maps of pitches called as balls, as received by the 6-foot-1 Buster Posey, the 6-foot-1 Yasmani Grandal and the 6-foot-5 Wieters last season. Posey and Grandal ranked No. 1 and 2, respectively, in framing rankings by Baseball Prospectus and StatCorner.

Grandal’s heat map:

screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-9-29-48-pm

Posey’s heat map :

screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-4-23-31-pm

Wieters’ heat map:

screen-shot-2017-01-03-at-4-17-18-pm

Pitchers threw 16,524 pitches toward Wieters last season. He allowed 131 pitches that were in the lower third of the zone to be called balls.

Grandal had a similar sample of 15,908 total pitches. Only 62 should-have-been strikes were called balls. And these heat maps are only focused on pitches called as balls; they don’t account for strikes stolen outside of the zone.

The Braves, Diamondbacks, and Nationals all reportedly have shown interest in Wieters. But if this were 2007 and not 2017, Wieters might already have a lucrative contract secured.

Perhaps Wieters entered the game at the wrong time. Teams have had pitch-tracking data for a decade now, they have more smart people working in front offices. Formerly hidden skills like receiving are no longer undervalued. Martin’s five-year, $82 million contract from two offseasons ago made that abundantly clear. (Recall that his previous deal was a two-year, $17 million pact with the Pirates, signed after he had essentially the same defensive performance coming out of New York.)

Wieters is in part available because he did not live up to what were perhaps unfair expectations of his bat. Wrote Kevin Goldstein of Wieters, his No. 1 overall prospect in 2009: “How many catchers in modern baseball history have profiled to hit third in the lineup of a championship club?”

Wieters is perhaps in part available because his agent is Scott Boras, who is often patient and will wait for a market to develop for his client.

But he’s available also because the industry has changed what it values behind the plate.

We hoped you liked reading Matt Wieters and the Curse of the Tall Catcher by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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dl80
Member
dl80

This is a really good article, Travis. I personally can’t wait until we get some kind of automatic ball/strike calls by computers or robots or whatever.

Allowing catchers to steal (or lose) strikes is the equivalent of praising a basketball player who can get away with traveling (well, more than the average player can) or praising a wide receiver who can get away with going out of bounds when catching a ball.

I mean, yes it is technically a benefit, but it feels cheap and is basically cheating.

Warning Track Power
Member
Warning Track Power

I too look forward to a strike zone that is sans humans, but I disagree that framing well is cheating.

Firstly, how do you distinguish between a catcher being quiet and a catcher who is pulling? Where’s that line?

Secondly, even if no catcher ever tried to pull (not that I even know how much of a factor pulling is), there would still be a massive difference in called strikes because of the ability to frame well without actively doing anything to influence the ump, such as setting up in the optimal position to give the ump a good look, the quietness of the glove, and the ability to be quieter when catching pitches that have greatly missed from their intended target. None of those things can possibly be construed as cheating, or as unfair. To go back to one of your analogies, that would be like how some wide receivers and other ball-carriers can run along the sideline maintaining their balance with the ball better than others.

Until we get a robo-zone I’m all for skilled receivers using their skill to augment their value.

dl80
Member
dl80

Yeah, I agree with you to some extent. I didn’t really mean that it was purposeful cheating by the catchers (though they all work on it, so they know it works). It’s more that they know they can get away with it.

That happens in every sport (basketball players who grab jerseys, football players who “accidentally” trip guys, etc.), but the difference is that there is a solution here. Maybe not an easy one, and maybe one that would take some time, but clearly it is possible.

John Autin
Member
Member
John Autin

I, too, hate that we have to acknowledge framing skills. I liken it to a middle infielder adept at the neighborhood play, or a pitcher who routinely gets away with a balk pickoff move. I wouldn’t call it cheating, because players aren’t responsible for self-policing of basic rules. But I’ll be happier when it becomes a dead issue.

NittanyBlueHen
Member
NittanyBlueHen

The best example to me is a basketball player who flops. It’s not really cheating but rather fooling the official into making the wrong call. There’s also a bit of an art to it. It’s a skill. But I totally agree, it’s absurd that it factors so much into a catcher’s value. I’d welcome robot umpires.