Matt Wieters Is Becoming Matt Wieters

Matt Wieters entered his rookie season of 2009 with considerable fanfare — especially among the baseballing nerd community. Even before he’d played his first major-league game, Wieters had been celebrated both as the sporting version of Chuck Norris and, by the PECOTA projection system, as very possibly the best hitter in the majors.

While perhaps overzealous, the expectations were based in some substance. Wieters slashed .366/.484/.594 in three years at Georgia Tech while walking (152) about 1.5 more times than he struck out (108) — as a catcher, no less. After being drafted fifth overall by Baltimore in the 2007 draft, Wieters slashed .343/.438/.576 with almost as many walks (102) as strikeouts (106) across three minor-league levels between 2008 and the beginning of 2009 — again, as a catcher. He was ranked as the 12th and then first overall prospect on Baseball America’s preseason top-100 lists from 2008 and ’09, respectively. If not likely, it seemed at least possible, that Wieters would be a star instantly.

The learned reader — or just the type of reader who knows how to access Wieters’ player page here at FanGraphs — will know that, while entirely satisfactory, Wieters’ rookie season failed to approach the frenzied heights one might’ve expected. The disappointment was magnified by early struggles that saw the catcher slash .263/.308/.369 through his first 273 plate appearances. In all, he posted a line of .288/.340/.412 (.356 BABIP) with a 95 wRC+ and 1.1 WAR in 385 plate appearances.

The subsequent season and a half weren’t much more impressive for Wieters. Really, up until the middle of this past August, Wieters appeared to be every bit the average, or maybe slightly above-average, major-league catcher. That has considerable value, of course, but it also represents something of a let down considering what it appeared Wieters could be.

The past month or so, however, has seen Wieters break out in a serious way. Since August 19th, the Oriole catcher has slashed .305/.374/.707 with nine homers, and a more than sustainable .267 BABIP, in his last 91 plate appearances. While one must always be careful with small samples, a couple of factors suggest that we ought to take Wieters’ performance as more than just the product of variance.

Firstly, let’s begin by appealing to Russell “Pizza Cutter” Carleton’s work on sample sizes and at what point they become reliable for various statistics. Specifically, we’ll look at the statistics that inform Fielding Independent Batting — namely, walks, strikeouts, home runs, and BABIP.

Over his first two seasons, in 887 plate appearances, Matt Wieters posted 87 walks (9.8%), 180 strikeouts (20.3%), 20 homers (2.3%) and a .317 BABIP — all leading to about a 90 wRC+. Using the minimum samples for each of the relevant stats, we find that Wieters has improved considerably. While his walk rate has decreased (to 8.4%) over the last 200 plate appearances, Wieters’ strikeout rate (17.0% over the last 150 PA) and home run rate (5.0% over last 300 PA) have both improved — with the latter showing marked improvement.

If we entertain the possibility that each of these new marks represents Wieters’ true talent, we find (via the magic of Bradley Woodrum’s Should Hit calculator, and plugging in Wieters’ career .303 BABIP) that Wieters is now no longer a slightly below-average hitter relative to the league, but rather something like a 130 wRC+ hitter. Assuming average defense at the catcher spot, a 130 wRC+ hitter is worth something like six wins (i.e. 6.0 WAR) every 650 plate appearances — a mark that fewer than 20 players are likely to reach in any given season.

The second reason we ought to consider Wieters’ recent excellence with more weight than we would another player’s is owing to something we might call the Alex Gordon Factor. Like Wieters, Gordon was an elite college hitter. Like Wieters, Gordon was taken very early (second overall, 2005) in the draft. Like Wieters, Gordon raked in limited minor-league at-bats. Like Wieters, Gordon was rated highly (13th and then first overall) on Baseball America’s prospect lists. And like Wieters, Gordon failed to live up to lofty expectations early on in his career — despite a great deal of evidence to suggest that he’d be excellent. In light of his history, Gordon’s fantastic 2011 (6.1 WAR in 666 PA) seems less like a real breakout and more like a foregone conclusion.

In truth, excellent college position players rarely fail in the majors. If we look at all the college hitters that were taken with the top-10 picks in the five drafts leading up to Wieters’, we get this list:

A short list like this doesn’t serve as a proxy for a more exhaustive study, but it does give us a sense of what we can expect from top college hitters. With the exception of Drew Meyer, all of these players developed into legitimate prospects. And with the exception of Jeff Clement, all those legitimate prospects turned into above-average major leaguers.

The moral of this story is that, despite his “merely” average first two-plus seasons in the majors, Matt Wieters’ pedigree suggests that his recent performance probably ought to be treated differently than if almost any other player (with the exception of Alex Gordon, maybe) were doing the same thing. While he may never be allowed to DH in the National League or regress to infinity, Wieters will likely end up being Matt Wieters of legend.

Baseball Reference’s game-log feature was very helpful in the composition of this post.

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For O’s fans at least, Wieters disappointment offensively has been partially counterbalanced by his surprisingly excellent defense. Teams don’t run on the Orioles anymore. And God knows it’s not for lack of baserunners.