When I think back to the 2008 Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year season of Matt Wieters, I think of the following lyrics:
“So much time to make up everywhere you turn, time we have wasted on the way.”
Those of course are the lyrics to “Wasted on the Way” by Crosby, Stills and Nash and that song title is a perfect description for what the Orioles have done to Matt Wieters’ offensive potential over the course of his career in MLB.
Matt Wieters was once the best hitting prospect in baseball and his 2008 minor league season is one of the best performances in the past 10 seasons. Fangraphs confirmed this with their new calculated stat of mWAR.
Wieters’ 2008 season performance checked in at #4 on the list behind the 2014 season of Kris Bryant, 2010 season of Brandon Belt and 2011 season of Jed Gyorko. However, if you just look at the offensive component, Wieters “Bat” category is 3rd best behind Belt and Bryant.
Kris Bryant is the best prospect in baseball much like Wieters was heading into 2009 and Brandon Belt had a .841 OPS in 2013, but Matt Wieters has yet to crack a .800 OPS for any full season he has played.
Here’s what Wieters did in 2008 compared to his career splits with the Orioles:
As you can see, Wieters hasn’t come close to meeting the numbers that he put up in the minors. Now a dropoff was to be expected, but the dropoff that occured is quite shocking. How did the Orioles let this happen?
The answer is they focused too much on what he did behind the plate instead of at it.
Baseball America ranked Wieters as the best college hitter in the 2007 draft yet the Orioles were obsessed with his throwing arm and skills behind the plate from Day 1.
Here’s what then co-GM Mike Flanagan and scouting director Joe Jordan had to say about him after he was drafted in an article for the Baltimore Sun:
“He has very soft hands and sets a good, low target,” Flanagan said. “And I like the way he calls a game.”
Said Jordan: “Pitchers love to throw to this guy. He’s not a vocal, throw-a-bat type of guy, but every pitcher that I’ve spoken with, the coaches at Georgia Tech, this guy is a leader.”
It was quite evident he would be a catcher first and a hitter second.
Then Wieters had his monster 2008 season and had a follow up 2009 Spring Training performance with a slash line of .333/.395/.513/.908 . What did Andy MacPhail think after optioning him to AAA Norfolk? Here’s what he said in an article for the Baltimore Sun:
“I think he had a good camp,” MacPhail said. “He certainly had a good spring offensively. He’s certainly one of the best disciplined young hitters that I’ve ever seen in my career. I think there is probably more work to do on the defensive side of the equation. Hopefully, he’ll continue the type of year he had last year and it won’t be long before we see him in Baltimore. Those things become self-evident over time.
So he was one of the best discplined hitters that MacPhail saw, yet the Orioles were focused on him improving defensively.
Wieters made his debut in late May of 2009 and he didn’t exactly set the world on fire with his bat with a .288/.340/.412/.753 line in 96 games that year. In 2010 Wieters struggled mightly at the plate with a .249/.319/.377/.695 line, the worst of his career.
What was the problem?
Alex Eisenberg of Baseball-Intellect.com had this to say in July of 2010 when he looked at Wieters’ swing:
The first thing I noticed was Wieters’ hands were lower in 2008 than they are in 2010…What Wieters is doing in 2010 is really wrapping the bat behind his head. He’s creating a longer swing for himself…The high hands, the barring of the right arm, and the wrapping of his bat all combine to make his swing longer. Wrapping the bat can also keep the bat head from staying in the hitting zone for as long a time as it should.
So mechanical flaws were evident in 2010, especially his hand placement.
What did Wieters think? He was interviewed by MLB.com before the 2011 season:
“My No. 1 job is to call a good game and get the most I can out of the pitchers,” Wieters said in a phone interview, “but I definitely want to help out the team a lot more [at the plate] than I did last year. I feel like I can have a better offensive year than I did last year, [and I’ve] been working hard to make that happen.”
Wieters did have a better season in 2011, with a slash line of .262/.328/.450/.778 and improved his ISO from .128 to .188.
He basically maintained his offensive output in 2012 with a .764 OPS but had a 10.1% BB rate, the highest of his Orioles career. However Wieters also started 132 games behind the plate for the Orioles, then a career high.
In 2013, he appeared in 140 games, starting 134 of them and led MLB in innings logged behind the plate with 1201.0 innings. It should come as no surprise that his offensive production dropped off a cliff as he had his worst year since 2010. Wieters managed only a .704 OPS and his OBP dipped to a career worst .287. His power was still there though as he maintained a .182 ISO.
After logging that many games and innings it also took a toll on Wieters’ throwing arm and he began to feel discomfort in his forearm and elbow in April according to an article in the Baltimore Sun:
Wieters had been dealing with some right arm pain that initially started in his right bicep and flexor tendon. He missed a game April 22 in Toronto with what he called right forearm soreness that developed after he made a throw to second base a few days earlier in Boston.
“It was kind of forearm, and even a little bicep, just when I first did it on that throw [in Boston],” Wieters said. “And I think those symptoms we got a hold of and got control of, and then it kind of set into the elbow a little bit, and that’s when the real concern happens that you want to make sure you get it checked out and looked at.”
In spite of the soreness in his throwing arm however, he was hitting .341 with a .570 SLG, his best start in his MLB career. In that same article manager Buck Showalter said that hitting didn’t bother him at all:
“It doesn’t hurt him to hit at all,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “That’s not a factor either way.
His career OPS vs. RHP (.709) was always worse than when he faced LHP (.830), but in 2014, Wieters was hitting RHP (.849) better than he was LHP (.799).
Why the sudden change? Wieters finally made the adjustment that Alex Eisenberg noticed that he needed to make back in 2010. Hitting coach Jim Presley talked about it with Roch Kubatko from MASNSports.com:
Wieters concentrated over the winter on finding a solution to his uneven splits and studied video with hitting coach Jim Presley before they came up with a few simple adjustments.
“He lowered his hands,” Presley said. “He was standing more erect. He’s lowered his hands where he can load up and keep his hands there and he doesn’t drift. That’s the main thing. So now he’s loading up and staying there. He’s not drifting as bad as he was the past couple of years.”
So it took five seasons for Wieters to fix what had been holding back his offense? Why didn’t the Orioles see this sooner and why didn’t Wieters try to fix it sooner?
As I mentioned in an entry in 2014, the Orioles and Jim Presley were fine with what they were getting from Wieters even though they knew he had flaws in his swing vs. RHP.
With those flaws corrected though, it seemed the Orioles were finally seeing the sustained offensive potential that Wieters showed in that huge minor league season in 2008. When he threw however, the soreness persisted, so in spite of his hot start at the plate, he elected to have Tommy John surgery in June to deal with his sore elbow, ruining what would have likely been a breakout season for the switch-hitter.
He was a catcher first, and hitter second so he wanted to make sure he was ready to catch for the Orioles in 2015 before entering free agency instead of DHing.
But was it really worth it?
Matt Wieters did win two Gold Gloves and has had three All-Star appearances, but it was all mainly based on the reputation of his throwing arm which now may never be the same.
His pitch framing skills, however were average to start out at best and have become worse each season as pointed out by John Shepherd at Camden Depot.
The 2014 season also proved the Orioles could win without Wieters behind the plate as the two catchers that replaced him – Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley were much better framers of pitches.
The Orioles could have found multiple catchers via trade or free agency with Wieters’ receiving skills behind the plate or better, yet they focused on Wieters’ throwing arm instead of his best attribute – his bat.
Matt Wieters played some first base and DH at Georgia Tech as well as closing so he didn’t have to be a catcher full time. The fact that he did do some closing at Georgia Tech as well as caught in the same game should have also raised some red flags to the Orioles that they needed to protect his throwing arm instead of exploiting it as the injury he had may have indeed originated in college and just became more aggravated the more he used his throwing arm as a catcher.
Instead, the Orioles used him and abused him behind the plate game after game, and in turn likely robbed themselves and the fans of seeing one of the most potent bats in MLB history.
Imagine if Wieters didn’t have to focus on his defense behind the plate and could concentrate more on his hitting. Perhaps he would have lowered his hands earlier and got back to his minor league stance and with it, the tremendous production. His sore arm may have also not been as much of an issue if it cropped up at all.
In 2015 the Orioles will get one last chance to see what kind of hitter Matt Wieters was supposed to be before he likely leaves the team in free agency.
With his recovery from elbow surgery, the Orioles have the advantage of being able to have Wieters focus more on his offense as a DH and if he keeps his lowered hands and upright stance, the results should be similar to what he started in 2014.
If I were the Orioles, I’d make Wieters the primary DH vs. RHP for awhile and not let him catch more than 80-100 games total. If they do that, fans should hopefully see what they saw for a brief point last year and should have seen all along from 6 seasons ago.
There’s so much time to make up, and the Orioles have wasted Wieters’ offensive potential on the way.
Let Wieters’ offense finally blossom, free of the burden of catching every day, and he could carry the Orioles to a World Series title.