There has been a lot of excitement in Birdland this week with the extensions to Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter being announced. Since they both have been locked up through the 2018 season, it’s time to turn our attention to the next Oriole who’s up for a contract extension: Matt Wieters. With stability and continuity in place in the Orioles front office and dugout, will we see the same sort of stability behind the plate? It appears more than ever that Matt Wieters himself is open to signing an extension in Baltimore. If you read Dan Connolly’s recent article in the Baltimore Sun, you get the feeling that Wieters is more than willing to sign on the dotted line right now. So the next question is, how much does it take to lock him up?
Much has been written about the fact that Wieters hasn’t turned into the superstar that he was projected to be by prospect analysts. The fact that he was the #1 overall rated prospect by Baseball America in 2009 contributed to the over the top expectations. He was supposed to be a monster putting up .300 avg, 30 HR, and 100 RBI seasons annually. But he didn’t turn into this incredible player jumping over mountains in a single bound. He became something less than that. Does that make him a failure? Not in my opinion. Over the last 3 years, the period that Wieters has been the full time catcher of the Orioles, he has been the 6th most valuable catcher in all of baseball according to FanGraphs WAR.
Wieters has been a slightly above league average hitter over this time frame with a .326 wOBA. He has progressively become more efficient at drawing walks even pushing his walk rate over 10% in 2012. When you consider the depressed level of offense league wide from the catcher position, the level of offense that Wieters has provided has been very valuable. Even if this is all he becomes on offense, no one should be disappointed. If anyone is, it’s only because their expectations were unrealistic in the first place.
While it’s still one of the stumbling blocks of sabermetric research, measuring catcher defense has gotten better over the past few years. It’s far for perfect and there are many advances still to be made. There’s also been some great research showing that pitch framing may have more value than any other aspect of catcher defense which is currently being measured. I’ve seen it argued that the pitch framing by Jose Molina of the Rays was worth as many as 50 runs by itself in 2012! When considered in that light, Molina’s signing with the Rays makes a lot more sense. The last number I saw for Wieters was that he was worth around 5 runs more than an average catcher per season for his framing. The aspects of defense that are easier to measure such as blocking pitches in the dirt and throwing out runners indicate that Wieters has generally been worth around 10 runs per season. If you add in pitch framing, he could be adding as much as +1.5 wins with his defense alone. Despite the fact that I don’t put much stock into Gold Gloves, he has won two of them in a row as well.
Some have argued that the Orioles shouldn’t give Wieters a long term extension because of the fact that catchers break down sooner than other players. This is ostensibly because of the strain put on their bodies by squatting behind the plate day after day. However, in some great research by Ryan Campbell of FanGraphs, he has shown that catchers don’t necessarily decline faster than players at other positions. Take a look at the following graph put together by Jeff Zimmerman.
The blue line shows all players. The red line shows the aging curve for full time catchers, while the yellow line includes part time catchers. The whole post is worth reading for more details. The other interesting fact gleamed from the research is the fact that catchers have a later peak than the general population of major league players. In all likelihood, this is because of the fact that a catcher works on his defense more than a typical player in the minors. If a catcher can’t play adequate defense, he’s not going to be put in charge of a major league staff and he won’t get to the majors. The idea is that once a player has been able to get his defense to a certain level, he can then begin to focus on improving the offensive side of his game. We certainly could still see this with Wieters. We all know the time that he puts into studying opposing hitters and into the defensive side of the game. Maybe the time has come for him to spend more of his energy improving with the bat in his hands.
The news has just come today that Matt has signed a 1 year, $5.5 million contract to avoid arbitration this offseason. That’s quite a raise for a first time arbitration eligible catcher. Still, that gives us a baseline to start with when valuing an extension for him. There is no rule against signing an extension even though the player has a one year contract in place. So what would a contract extension for him look like? For an extension to make sense for the Orioles, I believe that they would want to buy out at least 3 of his free agent seasons. That would take him through his age 32 season. Going any longer than that would put too much risk on the team in case of an injury or serious decline. We’ve seen how the 8 year Joe Mauer extension is working out.
Here’s a chart I put together showing the value of Wieters’ next 6 seasons and also showing what a potential contract could look like.
The value column shows what Wieters production would have typically been worth using $5 million per WAR, 5% inflation, and discounting his arbitration seasons at 40%/60%/80% of their value. I assumed that Wieters will be a 4 WAR player for the 2013 and 2014 season before beginning to decline. He probably won’t decline in a nice neat straight line like that, but the overall population of players will (as shown above). However, after he signed a 1 year contract today for $5.5 million, we can see that he will be providing surplus value over his contract from the beginning. I’d argue that the Orioles should be looking to buy out at least 3 of his free agent seasons. Assuming he declines at a rate of about a half win per year, these would be his last few seasons where he was at least an average player. There is also the possibility that 6 years from now Wieters will have to be moved off of catcher, which would decrease his value substantially.
In light of today’s extension, and all of the other evidence I’ve provided in this piece, I’d argue that the Orioles should make an extension offer to Wieters of 5 years and $76 million. $76 million is the $81.5 million in the chart above less the $5.5 million he received for 2013. That would give Wieters and his family lifetime security while also not handicapping the Orioles in their effort to put a competitive team around him. His agent Scott Boras has a well earned reputation for steering his clients toward free agency. But as Dan Connolly pointed out in his article, two high profile Boras clients in Jered Weaver and Carlos Gonzalez recently signed contract extensions prior to testing the market. Since Wieters sounds like he’s open to staying in Baltimore for the long term, I hope that the Orioles can sign him to an extension too.