In defense of Matt Wieters

Matt Wieters, the Baltimore Orioles three-time All-Star catcher, has been catching quite a bit of flak recently. Wieters, of course, was supposed to be “Joe Mauer with power” after the Orioles took him fifth overall in 2007. The switch-hitter has never really lived up to that hype, although his offensive future does look more powerful than Mauer’s. At this point in his career, Mauer is a sub-.400 slugging first baseman. Not exactly what the Minnesota Twins thought they were getting when they gave Mauer his $184 million extension.

Much of the criticism of Wieters of late has centered on the way the Orioles’ pitching staff performs with him behind the plate. I even wrote a little on the topic myself related to Kevin Gausman‘s performance this season. The Orioles are 10-8 in the month of August. Nine of those wins have come with Caleb Joseph catching. The Orioles are 9-1 with Joseph and 0-7 with Wieters. Steve Clevenger vultured the other win. There has been only one really ugly performance with Wieters catching, and that came last night as Miguel Gonzalez and T.J. McFarland melted down en route to a 15-2 loss to Mauer’s Twins. Gonzalez has struggled the entire second half. Two of the other losses Wieters caught came with Gonzalez getting the start. Gonzalez has given up 14 earned runs while walking seven and giving up three home runs across 15.0 innings in the three losses. Put that on Wieters if you want. One of the other losses came after Chris Tillman struggled in Seattle after getting drilled by a line drive. Another loss came in a matchup against Jacob deGrom.

Maybe there is something to the way Caleb Joseph handles the pitching staff. The Orioles do have a 3.39 ERA in the 75 games that he has caught, but a 4.51 ERA in the 34 games that Wieters has appeared behind the dish. The staff was also good with Joseph last season, but a lot of that blame has to be placed on the pitchers themselves, not the catchers. This is mostly the same group of unheralded pitchers that Wieters squeezed a 3.88 ERA out of in 2012. The pitching staff has a .282 BAbip with Joseph catching, but a .325 BAbip for Wieters. Bad luck appears to be partially to blame for the inflated ERA. Where Wieters has fallen behind Joseph is in throwing out basestealers. His caught stealing percentage is down to a career-low 27.8 percent, which is below the league average. At his peak, Wieters was among the league’s best at catching thieves, posting a 38.5 percent rate in 2012. That’s about as good as it gets for a catcher. There are few examples of catchers coming back from Tommy John surgery in baseball history, but it appears Wieters has lost a tick on his fastball down to second post-surgery.

As far as offense goes, there is no reason to bash what Wieters has done this season. His line — .283/.309/.452 — is one of the best in his career. It was also dragged down by a slow start to the season when he finally returned in June. Really, did you expect Wieters to pick up right where he left off in 2014 after a full year away from the Majors? Since the All-Star Game, Wieters has a .301/.326/.422 line. He could stand to walk with greater frequency, but his swing looks better than it has in years, and he is making good contact with fewer popups that became commonplace when he was batting a combined .242 in 2012 and 2013.

Wieters will always be haunted by the hype that surrounded him as the top pick in 2007, and that is unfair. For seven seasons, he has been a solid catcher, providing much better than league average production for the position. He is the best catcher in the team’s long history (oh, you thought it was Brook Fordyce, right?).

Wieters will be a free agent this offseason, and the Orioles should still have a good chance to sign him, as it’s hard to imagine another team being willing to pony up a long-term contract for a catcher who has yet to prove he can catch every day and is exhibiting signs of reduced arm strength after a significant injury. His bat isn’t quite good enough for a team to sign him to play first base. If the Orioles can get Wieters back on a two-year deal, they should, but with the assumption that he will be coming back to DH with occasional stints behind the plate. Caleb Joseph has proven his worth as a starting catcher, and allowing Wieters to focus more on hitting could pay off. Wieters has looked fresher this season, and is getting hot. Some of that must be attributed to the fact that he is not catching every day. For the Orioles, Wieters is more valuable as a hitter. It is inevitable that Matt Wieters will end his career at a position other than catcher. How soon he will be willing to make that transition is up to him.

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