Measuring Wieters' impact on Orioles isn't easy

Catcher hasn't lived up to lofty predictions for offensive output, but value comes in areas not easily tracked

April 11, 2011|By Kevin Van Valkenburg, The Baltimore Sun

Matt Wieters, the man Baseball Prospectus dubbed one of the "most disappointing prospects of all time," leaned against his locker recently and chuckled as he listened to the question.

Is it possible, the Orioles catcher was asked, that you've been called overrated and over-hyped so frequently in your brief career that the pendulum has swung back and you can now be considered underrated?

"I don't know," Wieters said, breaking into a thin smile. "I don't think you can really worry about it, because once that first pitch is thrown, all those ratings don't really mean much."

Wieters has always been less obsessed with where he ranks, at least statistically, than the rest of the baseball universe. Even when he was lanky kid growing up in Goose Creek, S.C., and would sit in front of his television and try to emulate Chipper Jones' smooth tempo with a bat in his hands, he didn't give it much thought. He just wanted to play and leave all the analysis to those standing outside the white lines.

But few modern players have seen their game receive such effusive praise one minute, then be subjected to such intense criticism the next. Even though Wieters won't turn 25 until late May, he has already been declared a bust of epic proportions by the people who obsess over baseball statistics and projections as though they are a beautiful math problem.

Once considered a Golden Boy in the eyes of most sabermetricians, Wieters was virtually written off after only a season and a half in the majors by the same people who predicted he would be better than Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer.

"Whatever his [minor league batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage] .343/.438/.576 rates seemed to portend, that's gone," Baseball Prospectus wrote about Wieters last month, "along with the notion that he's a switch-hitter (he has hit .230/.278/.344 from the right side) or a power hitter. His glove and the dream of what might have been will keep him around for years, but stardom now seems spectacularly unlikely."

Yet as Wieters' stock with stat gurus has plummeted, it has soared within baseball's camp of old school traditionalists. Ask the Orioles what has been the most important cog in their surprising start this year, and almost to a man they'll credit Wieters and the way he has guided an inexperienced pitching staff through the first week and a half of the season.

"I think he needs to get more credit than he's already gotten," Orioles pitcher Zach Britton said.

"I know some people have been praising him, but he deserves a lot more credit than we do. Obviously, we execute pitches, but he's the thinking guy out there. He's doing his job and reading the hitters. I don't know how he was last year, but he's pretty amazing, in my opinion."

Even though he's just a rookie, Britton has some insight. Wieters coaxed him through his first career start as he held the Tampa Bay Rays to three hits over six innings despite not having great control.

"I had so much confidence in him that once he put the finger down, I threw it. You've got to have faith in what you're throwing, and I felt like I had that. That's a credit to him," Britton said. "I think you'd rather have a catcher that's going to be amazing behind the plate than a guy that's going to hit .400 but not be able to handle a pitching staff. He can hit and he can handle the pitching staff, so it's kind of the best of both worlds."

Hard to measure

It does make for an interesting argument: Just how important, and valuable, can a catcher be if his OPS is under .700, as Wieters' was in 2010? How do you analyze a player when his strengths are categories that can't be fully quantified: defense, pitch selection and leadership?

Against Tampa Bay in the first three games of this season, Wieters had what Orioles manager Buck Showalter called one of the best defensive series he has seen from a catcher. He threw out runners, he blocked the plate brilliantly, he snared three foul tips — including one in his shinguard — and he called a flawless game. The Orioles' starting pitchers gave up one run in three games. Pitching coach Mark Connor said he sat in the dugout for three days and "marveled" at the way Wieters called the games, then compared his feel for the game to Boston Red Sox veteran Jason Varitek's.

Sabermetricians such as Bill James, as well as several analysts for Baseball Prospectus, have argued that, if you examine a large enough sample size, there is no proof that catchers have a significant effect on pitcher performance. Traditionalists like Showalter, however, scoff at that line of thinking.

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