Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Time to worry about Wieters?

There's a small contingent of Orioles fans out there who are more than a little concerned about the young career of Matt Wieters. You may not have heard much from them and there may not be many of them yet, but I guarantee they're out there. Maybe you've overheard a few people at an O's game, or maybe you've heard an oddball caller or two on a sports talk radio show.

Has Wieters lived up to the hype yet? Well, no, he hasn't. But there aren't exactly that many Jason Heywards out there who can just start raking from day one. Apparently many people were expecting Wieters to not just be Joe Mauer, but to be Joe Mauer from the start.

Here's a newsflash: Wieters isn't Mauer. Not only is Mauer the best catcher in the game today, but, barring injury, he'll probably go down as one of the best catchers of all time. Does Wieters have the skills to one day be named with some of the best to ever play the position? Definitely, but he only recently just turned 24 and has yet to play an entire season in the big leagues.

It's OK to be a little frustrated with Wieters's early struggles at the plate. All O's fans want him to dominate. But it's not OK to fail to recognize that early career struggles are pretty normal, especially for a young guy behind the plate. And, for what it's worth, Wieters has grown defensively, demonstrating improved mechanics that have led to him throwing out a higher percentage of runners.

With that out of the way, let's go to the numbers. (In 2009, Wieters played in 93 games; so far this year, he's played in 43.)

2009: .288/.340/.412, 9 HR
2010: .256/.318/.365, 4 HR

So, quickly, he's not getting on base or driving the ball as much (so far) as he did in his rookie season. That could mean that he's maybe walking less or striking out more, right? Not true.

2009: 7.3 BB%, 24.3 K%
2010: 8.2 BB%, 22.4 K%

Those aren't necessarily huge changes, but they are productive ones. Oddly enough, he's walking more and striking out less despite expanding the zone a little: He's swinging at 28.1% of pitches outside the zone (compared to 25.4% in last season). A few other good things: Wieters is making more contact with pitches inside the zone (90.6% from 83.7%), pitches outside the zone (63.8% from 61.2%), and, because of that, he has a higher overall contact percentage (81.1% from 77.5%).

Unfortunately, though, as you can tell by the numbers listed first, Wieters has struggled a bit to take advantage of striking out less, walking more, and making better contact. Why?

Reason #1: He's not hitting the ball as hard.

His line drive percentage is down from 18.5% in 2009 to 16.5% this season, which has also played a significant factor in his high BABIP from last season (.356) dropping down to .308. In the minors, Wieters always had high BABIPs, but he was also hitting the ball extremely hard in every level. Maybe he's been a little unlucky (for him), but not abnormally so.

Reason #2: He's hitting more ground balls.

In 2009, Wieters's GB% was 41.9; right now, it's 49.6%. For a fast runner, this would be a good thing, as it's normally good for someone who's quick to keep the ball on the ground so he can use his legs. Well, Wieters is not a fast runner -- at all. He should be able to adjust and hit more line drives and balls in the gap, but right now he's rolling over on a lot of pitches.

Reason #3: He's struggled with fastballs.

It seems that one way pitchers have been attacking Wieters is to get ahead of him in the count and then make him chase fastballs up in the zone. Pitchers have been throwing him more first pitch strikes this season (up to 61.2% from 53.0%), and he generally hasn't been swinging at as many pitches in the strike zone to begin with (70.2% in 2009; 58.2% now). Anyway, that first sentence was just a guess, but he has struggled with fastballs overall. Last year, Wieters was 7.5 runs above average when it came to hitting fastballs. But so far, he's at -2.3 against fastballs. He has made progress, though, when it comes to hitting sliders, cutters, and changeups. He's struggled slightly more against curveballs -- but not much. Many young hitters gear up to hit the fastball but can't seem to fight off offspeed pitches. Wieters seems to have already made that adjustment, though he may have overcompensated.

Those are just three of the problems I noticed with Wieters (with the help of stats from FanGraphs, of course). The good news is that all of these things are fixable. Maybe he needs to attack some first pitches more often, and maybe he needs to swing at more pitches in the zone. Obviously, it's simple to just say that and much more difficult to accomplish such tasks.

The important thing is that Wieters has shown that he can improve and is willing to do so. With him getting consistent at bats, he should be able to make adjustments and learn what works best at the plate for him to maximize his offensive talents.

I think Wieters will turn things around, and I don't think it'll take too long for that to happen. But if they don't, there's going to be plenty of time to worry and complain then. I'm not worried now, and neither should you.

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