Matt Wieters and the Missing Strikes
Matt Wieters was supposed to be a great hitter. He rose through the ranks of the Orioles’ farm system slashing .343/.438/.576 in 693 total plate attempts through various minor league levels, and his power potential from a typically light-hitting spot on the field was enough to excite members of the national media, to speak nothing of Orioles fans.
Strangely, or perhaps not, because few prospects turn out the way teams hope for them to, hitting has not been the hallmark of Matt Wieters’ Major League career. He has disappointed at the plate but hasn’t been wholly unacceptable; he hits well enough from the right side of the plate against lefties and provides power from a position that rarely sees any of it (Wieters hit more home runs than any catcher in 2013 besides Mike Napoli, and come on, he’s a first baseman).
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Matt Wieters has instead made his mark as a premier defensive catcher, throwing out over 35% of would-be base stealers in both 2012 and 2013 despite having already made a name for himself as a difficult catcher to run on. He ranks in the top 5 for CS% in both of those seasons even while fighting the feedback loop that makes it hard to consistently remain among the top catchers in that category: if baserunners know he can throw them out often, they’ll only run in situations of necessity or tremendous opportunity. Basically, Matt Wieters only sees stolen base attempts when baserunners have to go or when it’s so wide open, the base is practically free. He’s got multiple Gold Gloves, if you put any stock into that as a validation of defensive ability.
But there is a hole in Wieters’ game, and it’s one that has only recently come to light as seemingly every facet of offensive baseball has already been dissected and SABRmetricians have moved on to more taxing analysis: pitch framing, or the art of making it look like a borderline pitch or even a clear ball is a definite strike – and making sure a definite strike doesn’t look like a ball. If you’re wondering how pitch framing ability is measured, check out this wonderfully descriptive article on BSL. Now, pitch framing may sound like a very minor part of a catcher’s job, but as Grantland has pointed out, it can be worth as many as 2 wins per season (#longreads, but very worth it).
The value of framing a given pitch is estimated to be around 1.3 runs by Dan Turkenkopf, a former Baseball Prospectus writer and a current member of the Rays organization. Not long ago, Baseball Prospectus published a new estimate of run-value of framing based on specific counts. This works under the assumption that certain counts are more favorable to pitchers than others, which aligns with common baseball knowledge: it’s harder for the batter to take borderline pitches with two strikes than it is with none. The updated estimates from Baseball Prospectus are shown below:
|Ball||Strike||Maximum Framing Run Value Available|
An extra strike created by the catcher is worth a lot in situations where it also creates an out. It’s worth noting here that not only is there a small sample size, as batters tend to take less often in possible at-bat ending situations, but umpires are shown to be biased toward not impacting the game with a called fourth ball or third strike.
Let’s cut to the chase: Matt Wieters is not highly regarded in more advanced pitch framing measurements. This article shows him as being among the worst catchers in making sure pitches in the zone are called strikes. Camden Depot shows Wieters on a negative trajectory, becoming consistently worse at framing as his career has progressed, his ability worth -8.7 runs in 2013. CBS Sports puts Wieters’ 2013 at -9.1 runs worse than average in pitch framing. Baseball Prospectus is the least favorable, showing Wieters’ framing to be worth -16.4 runs. Using the typical 10 runs = 1 win conversion, Wieters may be costing the O’s about a win over the course of a season. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a player worth 0.5 bWAR in all of 2013 (a figure he’s already matched in 2014, by the way), which, as far as I know does not account for pitch framing.
After 2014, we may have a better idea of how well Wieters frames pitches for his rotation. With Ubaldo Jimenez joining the squad and a full season of Bud Norris, the team has added two pitchers who have something of a baseline in called balls and strikes to compare Wieters to. Essentially (as I’m typing this, I’m realizing that this is not “essentially,” but exactly what will happen), it’ll be possible – and given the run value of framing, worthwhile – to watch Jimenez’s fastballs to Wieters on the inside lower corner of the plate to right-handed batters while a specific umpire is calling the game to see how many were called strikes with other catchers and how many are called strikes with Wieters. Baseball Prospectus noted that people in the industry think his framing metrics will be improved simply by bringing in pitchers with an existing baseline performance to compare to, so maybe Wieters is only costing the team a half of a win every season.
There are three upsides to Wieters’ framing shortcomings. First, Wieters is penalized for catching the majority of Orioles pitchers, and for the Orioles pitching staff having relatively little turnover in the last few years. Chris Tillman and Wei-Yin Chen have never pitched to anyone else, for instance; it’s impossible to determine a control to compare Wieters’ framing to, since the only baseline to use is Wieters himself. The second is that it may not be Wieters’ fault. The Orioles pitchers may just be young and inconsistent and inaccurate, all of which tend to push umpires to call borderline pitches strikes. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard Jim Palmer say, “Until he shows that he can consistently throw to that spot on purpose, he won’t get the strike call even though it’s on the black,” …well, I’d at least have one dollar, if you were lenient enough to count similar remarks. Even when pitches end up in the zone, if they were far enough away from where Wieters positioned his glove, the umpire might mistake bad pitching for a ball.
Finally, pitch framing is far from the only responsibility of the catcher. Blocking bad pitches, blocking the plate, making tags, throwing runners out, fielding, you know, offense, and actually calling the game are all integral parts of one of the most challenging positions on the field, and most are not a part by WAR. By all accounts, Matt Wieters is considered very good at all of these things. Having some shortcomings in pitch framing is wonderfully and happily forgiven for being a rock (and a healthy one at that) for the oft-changing arm portion of the battery. Seriously, who has time to practice framing pitches when you have to learn the new guy from AAA’s name, his pitches, his comfort level, and teach him the calls every few weeks? Hopefully a steady rotation in 2014 with some proven pitchers like Tillman and Chen will give Wieters a little break from being the captain of the ship and give him time to focus on pitch framing.
But seriously, if Wieters can get just one of Jimenez’s pitches called a strike, the catcher will be worth the $50M the team is giving the pitcher.