When Matt Wieters was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles, he was proclaimed to be “Joe Mauer with power”, and after mashing in the minors to the tune of .343/.438/.576, Wieters had a cult of personality leading to the creation of Matt Wieters Facts by our own Daniel Moroz. There was every reason to believe he was the next big thing—big switch-hitting catcher, excellent defensive skills, and a track record from college through the minors leagues—but 260 or so games into his major-league career, the man “even atheists believe in” has hit an almost average .264/.327/.394. Hitting about average for a major-leaguer isn’t bad when you’re a catcher, but it’s far below the lofty expectations placed upon the man “who sees you when you’re sleeping”. So we have several questions. Is his Hall of Fame candidacy, that at one time seemed so assured, gone? What kind of player is he now? What player can he still be?
Going back to the first question, we want to know where Wieters sits historically. Are there Hall of Fame catchers that had similar slow starts to their careers? If there are, then Wieters still has a chance to be an all-time great, right? Let’s look at a WAR graph, created by FanGraphs, that compares Wieters, Thurman Munson, Johnny Bench, and Ivan Rodriguez by their production by their ages.
Note: the last green line is adjusted toward the 5-win barrier for this season. It has him at 1 now, but he’s likely to improve on that, which changes the outlook of the graph.
Johnny Bench (excuse the pun) is the benchmark for catchers. During his peak from his age 20 to age 28 seasons, he was pretty much always worth 5+ wins and worth over 8 wins three times. 5+ wins puts a player into All-Star territory, but 8+ puts a player into MVP/Historic territory. It’s pretty hard to put Wieters or anybody into that territory, so we’ll use a couple other examples.
Pudge Rodriguez is a nice, contemporary choice that will probably make the Hall of Fame once his career is over. He’s obviously a little ahead of Wieters at this point, but when you start looking at where they are in the same age season, it becomes a little more even. If Wieters can maintain his current production for the rest of the season, he’ll be worth about 4 fWAR (Wins Above Replacement by FanGraphs), which is still below Rodriguez but not too far away. While it’s hard to imagine Wieters getting up to the 6+ win mark (one of the best All-Stars but just under MVP territory) four times or even once, Wieters can certainly get close. Maybe he won’t be a Hall of Famer, but that’s a pretty tall order anyway.
I liked the Thurman Munson comparison. Good catcher but not necessarily great. Munson peaked a few times to 6+ wins but mainly sat between 4-5 wins, which is still really good. If I had to imagine a future career for Wieters, this is it—one of the better catchers in the league with a few awesome seasons mixed in but not necessarily consistently awesome. But before I claim that Wieters can have that future, I imagine you’d like some proof.
33 games into this season, the man “who snacks on batting donuts” sports a .248/.323/.407 line. It’s a pretty average line, but considering he’s a catcher, that’s not bad. It’s even an improvement over last season even as offense appears to be going down, and he should get better. His batting average on balls in play (BABiP) is .279 and about 30 to 40 points below his career average, which means his batting average, OBP, and SLG should be heading upward. To support that theory, Wieters’ line-drive percentage (LD%) sits at 23.3%, which is easily a career-high and indicates that he’s making better contact with the ball. Another important difference is that he’s hitting fewer ground balls. If you want a power-hitter, you want a guy to put the ball in the air more often, and his GB/FB has gone from 1.21 to 0.97, meaning he is hitting more fly balls. Defensively, Matt Klaasen at Beyond the Boxscore says that Wieters is the best defensive catcher in baseball, which works with the positive measurements other defensive metrics have given him lately. So he’s already been worth a win as we approach the quarter mark, and he actually projects to do better, meaning he could get to 4.5-5 wins (though that is probably optimistic).
Which brings us to the ultimate question—how good will the man who can “make Chuck Norris cry like a little girl” be? We’ve already talked about this season. He could be a 4-5 win player this season, and there’s nothing about this season that screams fluke. Actually, it seems to argue that Wieters is starting to improve, and as he begins to enter his prime (he’s 25 now), he can actually get better. It wouldn’t surprise me if he rattled off a few 6+ win (best catcher in the AL-type) seasons in the near future. Wieters has had an underwhelming start to his career, but for the most part, it has only been underwhelming because of our deliriously high expectations. Remember, he hasn’t played two full seasons yet, and he has plenty of time to become the player we all thought he should have been. Heck, even God took a day off every once in a while.