Replacing Matt Wieters
When Matt Wieters went down in early May with an elbow injury that would eventually require Tommy John surgery, it appeared that the Orioles were losing one of the brightest spots in their 2014 season. Wieters had been slashing .308/.339/.500 with a wRC+ of 131, making this his best offensive season in the pros. In just 26 games, Wieters had posted a 0.8 fWAR, equal to what Caleb Joseph has racked up in twice the time.
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The Orioles were 15-14 after May 4, the last game in which Wieters caught for the Orioles this season. It’s true that Wieters had a few days of rest in there, some of which were the result of his elbow injury. He appeared in 22 games as a catcher for the Orioles this season, and 15-14 was the team’s record through its first 29 games.1 At the time, the pitching staff was unquestionably Matt Wieters’.
Since Wieters’ last game as the Orioles’ starting catcher, the Orioles have gone 49-34, winning at a .590 clip. The pitching has been unquestionably better, especially since the end of June/early July. Is Wieters as good with the pitchers as we thought?
To determine the effect of losing Wieters and adding Caleb Joseph (and Nick Hundley, to a lesser extent) on the Orioles’ rotation, I’ll use a method dubbed “With Or Without You,” or WOWY, by Tom Tango. The idea is pretty simple: compare process and outcomes from games in which Matt Wieters caught to games in which Caleb Joseph (and Nick Hundley, to a lesser extent) caught. Grantland writer Ben Lindbergh recently used this method to calculate the effect of Yadier Molina’s game calling, to include calling pitches, visiting the mound, pacing, recommending mechanical issues, and everything and anything else catchers do to make the game easier for their battery mates that isn’t captured by offensive and defensive quantitative metrics. Lindbergh got help from Mitchel Lichtman, who has years of data available and was able to put together something pretty comprehensive (and convincing) about Yadier being the best catcher in baseball. I don’t have that mass of data – nor does it exist, as Caleb Joseph has played just 51 professional games ever, all of which have come this season. I’ll have to be pretty topical and use more generalized information: namely, May 4 as the cutoff point between the Matt-Wieters-as-Starting-Catcher era and the Caleb-Joseph-as-Starting-Catcher era, since May 4 was the last game Wieters caught in 2014.
So that I don’t have to keep saying it, know that the Caleb Joseph era includes appearances from Steve Clevenger (16 games) and Nick Hundley (30 games) and the Matt Wieters era also includes brief appearances from Clevenger (8 games). The so-called Caleb Joseph era is really the Non-Wieters era, and we’re looking for a change in pitching approach and results during this era. The assumption is that Wieters led the catchers in determining how each pitcher should throw -more fastballs, more changeups, etc. – and with him out of the picture as a player, the replacements have been given the chance to study the tape and make those calls themselves.
This table shows how pitch selection has changed since Caleb Joseph (mostly) took over, represented by percentage of each pitch type thrown:
||Caleb Joseph Era
Pitch selection hasn’t changed all that much, but where are the most significant changes? Take a look at this table of growth in percentage of pitch thrown by pitch type:
Clearly, Joseph and Hundley don’t like calling for offspeed pitches as much as Matt Wieters did. Catchers in the Caleb Joseph Era are asking Tillman for more breaking pitches. Interestingly, since the Joseph Era began, Tillman is getting more swings and fewer whiffs per swing against his curveball. Tillman’s curveball has been worth 2.9 runs below average this season, but his changeup has been nearly twice as bad, worth 5.6 runs below average.
Miguel Gonzalez’s entire approach as been turned upside down. He’s throwing hard pitches 16% less, offspeed pitches 10% less, and breaking pitches 56% more often than he did in the Wieters Era. In fact, his rate of hard pitches during the Joseph era is well below his career averages. Perhaps this is not merely a coincidence: Miguel Gonzalez’ fastball has been worth 14.5 runs below average this season and his split-finger fastball has been worth 5.9 runs below average. His slider has been worth 1.4 runs above average and his curveball worth 1.5 runs above average.
Miguel Gonzalez’ ERA has dropped from 5.86 in the Wieters Era to 3.15 in the Joseph Era, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. His FIP through May 4 was 4.96, and after that it’s been 5.52. It appears that Gonzalez is getting lucky this season, and much luckier as of late. He is, however, getting hammered by BABIP in the Joseph era. Perhaps his luck will even out soon.
Gonzalez was up in the zone more with Wieters calling the shots, but that could have been an early-season issue that would have been ironed out with or without Wieters behind the dish.
Joseph often gets props for being a great pitch framer, worth about 10.2 runs from pitch framing alone so far this season. Wieters does not have the same reputation, worth just 5 runs from pitch framing in 2012, his best season. While it’s a very small sample with just one pitcher, look at where Miguel Gonzalez has gotten called strikes on his curveball with Wieters behind the plate:
Miguel Gonzalez’s called strike zone when throwing his curveball to Matt Wieters
Then, look at where he’s getting called strikes with his curveball with Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley (who is considered a poor pitch framer, by the way) catching:
Miguel Gonzalez called strike zone when throwing his curveball to Caleb Joseph and Nick Hundley
Again, very anecdotal evidence here, but it appears that Gonzalez is getting calls below the strike zone where he definitely did not with Wieters catching, and is more willing to throw his curveball low and to the catcher’s right.
Sure, Matt Wieters’ fWAR was much better than Joseph’s and Hundley’s individually (0.8 and -0.2, respectively) and put together (0.6). More impressive is that Wieters racked up his 0.8 fWAR over such a short period of time. Since his departure from the team, some pitchers have made changes, and gotten some good results because of it. If this is all due to Caleb Joseph, he could be All-Star quality moving forward, whether he’s recognized for it or not.
1. Started at the bottom, now we here.