It’s No Great Mystery Why Matt Wieters Is Available

Matt Wieters is a free agent right now, but he won’t be for long. Spring training is right around the corner, and Wieters is a legitimate big-league backstop, so at some point his expectations and a team’s open-mindedness will come into alignment. These things can drag out sometimes. A few years ago, people thought Prince Fielder was screwed. He signed for $214 million in the last week of January. Scott Boras is good. He should pretty much always get the benefit of the doubt.

Yet in the case of Wieters, you can see why he’s still out there. This is all prompted by a Ken Rosenthal article titled: “Why is veteran catcher Matt Wieters still on the free-agent market?” Boras is quoted within, and, what the hell, let’s just get right to it. Boras obviously has his agenda, but it isn’t hard to pull his argument apart.

Firstly, I do want to say that Wieters might well suffer from something of a perception problem. He’s been a perfectly acceptable everyday backstop, but he was supposed to be more than this. Remember Matt Wieters Facts? Before 2009, Wieters was the Baseball America No. 1 overall prospect, in front of David Price and Colby Rasmus. Since Wieters debuted, he’s managed the same wRC+ as Aaron Hill, Juan Uribe, and A.J. Ellis. Right now he’s coming off a wRC+ of 88. Steamer projects him for a wRC+ of 89. For a catcher, it’s playable, but the bat was supposed to have a lot more life. Wieters hasn’t been that franchise cornerstone.

So Wieters, at the plate, has been fine. Nothing more. He comes with some power. He’s going to turn 31 years old in May. To really build him up, you have to argue he’s defensively valuable. Any regular catcher has real defensive value, but Wieters just doesn’t have much evidence to point to that he’s better than average.

One Boras point:

The Orioles, while making the playoffs for the third time in five years last season, pitched better when Wieters was their catcher.

Their staff ERA with Wieters: 3.98 in 980 1/3 innings.

With their other catchers: 4.72 in 451 1/3 innings.
Boras said he has circulated these numbers and others to various clubs.

I mean, we’re talking one season of catcher ERA. This wouldn’t convince anyone of anything. The four pitchers Wieters caught most often: Chris Tillman, Kevin Gausman, Yovani Gallardo, and Dylan Bundy. The four pitchers Caleb Joseph caught most often: Ubaldo Jimenez, Dylan Bundy, Vance Worley, and Tyler Wilson. It’s silly already, but if you’re really stubborn about catcher stats like this, what if we extended to a three-year window, instead of focusing on 2016? Over the last three years, Orioles pitchers have a combined 4.09 ERA throwing to Wieters. They have a combined 3.78 ERA throwing to other catchers. I still wouldn’t recommend catcher ERA for analysis, but, here we are. It works against Boras, if anything.

Boras also offered an argument against pitch-framing data. The numbers say that Wieters has been a below-average receiver for years. Here’s a quote:

“Framing is not as defining a metric because it’s so pitcher-dependent,” Boras said. “Great catchers teach power pitchers to throw pitches that aren’t strikes — inside, outside, up, down. Because the hitters have to commit early, because you have big velo, your command comes from actually learning to throw balls — hitters often swing at ’em.

“That’s why velo pitchers are very, very effective in the ERA category with a catcher, but their framing statistics are going to be well less than the norm. That framing characteristic for a velo pitcher is a false-effectiveness dynamic. The catcher is promoting the pitcher to throw the ball in the areas that aren’t strikes because the hitters are less effective hitting it when it’s not in the strike zone.”

I don’t…really…know what this argument is. Any good framing metric takes pitch location into account. Otherwise it would be a terrible metric. The numbers at Baseball Prospectus also at least attempt to adjust for pitcher identity. I can say one thing, using Baseball Savant: The average fastball Wieters caught last year was 93.3 miles per hour, 18th-fastest out of 88. Maybe it’s something. I don’t think it is. In this plot, those average fastball velocities against CSAA, Baseball Prospectus’ pitch-framing rate stat. The higher the CSAA, the better the receiving performance.

This is randomness. Perhaps looking at one year is too small a sample, and I totally understand that some pitchers are easier to receive than others. The softer a pitcher throws, the better his command has to be in order for him to survive in the major leagues. There’s some kind of argument that perhaps Wieters has had to deal with relatively wild arms. But then, what do you say for his teammates? The last three years, according to Baseball Prospectus, Wieters’ framing has been 10 runs worse than average. Other Orioles catchers come in at a combined +28. Caleb Joseph himself is at +30. Wieters’ ERA doesn’t help him, and his framing doesn’t help him.

Boras is right that Wieters is a fine blocker, and he’s right that he’s a good thrower. Those aren’t worth nothing, but they’re very minor traits, relative to everything else. And the leadership and experience argument — there’s no denying that Wieters is experienced, and most catchers have to be leaders in some form or another, but there’s no actual proof of a benefit. Teams now mostly want to pay for the things they can measure. It’s not that there isn’t room for intangibles, but Boras’ argument here simply cannot be quantified. So it’s tough to advance, and it’s tough to be convincing, when you’re talking about a catcher in his 30s with a declining bat and mediocre defensive value. Maybe Wieters is great with young pitchers, but the Orioles haven’t had great luck with young pitchers, have they? So I don’t know where you take this.

Matt Wieters isn’t bad, and Matt Wieters isn’t finished. He’s going to get a job, and he’s going to get his plate appearances, and maybe he’ll become a more consistent power source. Sometimes things can just click. But so much of the evidence is simply stacked against him, if he’s expecting a major commitment. Based on what we think we know, Wieters is an average player at best. Teams don’t fall all over themselves to bring in average players.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

I read that Rosenthal piece this morning. Thanks for taking it apart. I’m no baseball analyst, but the flimsiness of Boras’ statistical arguments for Wieters were immediately apparent, even to me. What was less apparent to me was why Rosenthal was uncritically repeating Boras’ statistical wharrgarbl. I suppose carrying Boras’ water every now and then is the price of Boras giving Rosenthal scoops.

7 years ago
Reply to  HarryLives

And after how things went down with Rosenthal in Baltimore, he’s loved to take any position that makes the org look bad