It's time to apologize for doubting Orioles' Wieters

May 29, 2011|Kevin Cowherd

Here's today's question: When do we all start apologizing to Matt Wieters?

When do all the critics who called the Orioles' young catcher a bust admit: "OK, we were wrong?"

When do all the fans who blasted him on talk radio for not instantly turning into Johnny Bench say, "Fine, maybe we were a little hasty?"

Yeah, Wieters has been some bust, all right.

All he's done this spring is call games brilliantly for the Orioles' young pitching staff and throw out 14 of 31 would-be base stealers, a major league-leading 45 percent.

And all he's done at the plate is bat a respectable .271 and drive in 26 runs, second on the Orioles to Adam Jones' 29.

No wonder the guy's being talked up for the All-Star Game, even after the reeling Orioles were swept by the Oakland Athletics this past weekend.

"This is my 22nd year in the major leagues, and he's the best pure catcher, throwingwise, calling the ballgame, receiving the ball, tagging the runners, that I've been with," says Mark Connor, the Orioles pitching coach. "I'm not saying he's Johnny Bench or anything else, but for a young kid to be able to grasp the things that he's grasped … is quite a testimony to him."

Want to know how good Wieters is going behind the plate?

In the Orioles' dugout, they actively root for opposing base runners to take leave of their senses and test his arm.

"I sit there with [manager Buck Showalter] sometimes and say, 'I wish this guy would run, because it'll be a free out,'" Connor says.

Anyone in this town who has watched the Orioles catcher night after night probably does the same thing.

Someone gets on base for the opposing team, and suddenly you hear the voice of Joe Angel or Fred Manfra or Gary Thorne looping through your head: "There goes the runner … here's Wieters' throw … and he's OUT!"

Wieters' release is so quick and efficient, his throws so accurate, he's re-defining the capabilities of a big (he's 6 feet 5) catcher.

The Orioles still talk about the missile Wieters threw last week to gun down Washington Nationals pinch-runner Brian Bixler at second base in the ninth inning to preserve a 2-1 win.

The throw was so perfect, shortstop J.J. Hardy could have sat in a lounge chair with a pina colada and not spilled a drop as he slapped the tag on Bixler.

It was so perfect, it sent a bunch of the Orioles, including Showalter and right fielder Nick Markakis, straight to the video room so they could watch the replay and gush about it some more.

But good luck getting Wieters to acknowledge how good he has been this season. All he does is deflect praise. And heap it on his teammates. The guy is so humble, he makes Mother Teresa look like a showboat by comparison.

When I mentioned that baseball people are calling him the best-throwing catcher in the game, Wieters actually appeared to wince.

For a moment, I wondered whether maybe I'd just blurted out something nasty about his mom instead.

"It's nice to hear that compliment," he said finally. "But at the same time, once you start looking at your compliments, that's when things start to turn the other way. So you've got to block everything out. Today's a new day."

Coming from a lot of other ballplayers, that might sound phony and self-serving. But not when it comes from Wieters, which is just another reason his teammates love him.

"He studies film of hitters," Connor says. "He's just not wrapped up in his offensive numbers. The pitchers know that. He cares about them and the results they get.

"I think Wiety would be very happy going 0-for-4 and he caught a shutout. And that's what you want out of a catcher."

Here's what's clear: In his third season, Wieters, 25, is starting to live up to the ridiculous hype that accompanied his selection as the Orioles' first-round draft choice in 2007.

He says he's not doing anything differently this season in terms of throwing out runners. Instead — here's another shocker — he credits Orioles pitchers with being quicker to the plate this season, making his job easier.

Ideally, says Connor, you want your pitcher taking no more than 1.3 seconds to deliver a pitch with runners on base. And you want your catcher to take no more than 2.0 seconds firing the ball to the bag to get the runner.

Wieters' release time is well under that, Connor says.

How much under?

"I don't want to say, 'cause I've timed him," Connor says. "And sometimes I look at my [stopwatch] and I go, 'That can't be possible.'"

But even though Connor treats Wieters' release time like it's today's White House nuclear code, Showalter readily tells you it's a super-quick 1.8 seconds.

Wieters shrugs that off, too.

"You try to be under 2.0," he says. "But more important than that, you try to make an accurate throw. If you're 1.8 and off the bag, it [doesn't help]."

Wieters says all the flak he took from the critics and fans the past two seasons didn't bother him because "I never put on my goal sheet to make the Hall of Fame or be the best player ever. I just wanted to be the best player I could be."

So far this season, he's been plenty good enough for the Orioles. He probably won't get the apologies he deserves from all the haters.

But he sure has been fun to watch.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

Listen to Kevin Cowherd from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays with Jerry Coleman on V1370 AM Sports.

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