May 2, 2012; Bronx, NY, USA; Baltimore Orioles catcher Matt Wieters (32) hits a home run to right during the fourth inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Baltimore won 5-0. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE
Is Matt Wieters ready to take over the title of Best Catcher in Baseball? Chuck Norris sure thinks so.
Back in 2008, Matt Wieters was a demigod. A knight in shining armor. The Chosen Son of Baltimore. The hero that would lift the O's from the league's doormat single-handedly.
He was Baltimore's own Chuck Norris.
"Matt Wieters took batting practice this morning ... there were no survivors."
"The sun rises when Matt Wieters decides to wake up."
In case you missed this internet phenomenon, for a chunk of time back before Wieters made his major-league debut in 2009, Matt Wieters Facts were springing up everywhere across the baseball interwebs. Sure, these jokes were mostly recycled Chuck Norris jokes, but you can't blame Orioles fans for getting excited about Wieters. At 22 years old, he had just put up Barry Bonds-esque numbers down in Double-A: .365/.460/.625. He walked more than he struck out, and he displayed cleanup power (.260 ISO) while playing catcher.
Not to mention, the Orioles have had a horrible track record of success when it comes to developing young players. The O's were supposed to have a dominant pitching rotation by now, headlined by Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, and Zach Britton, but those plans exploded before making it out of the hangar. And by my count, there have only been five quality major leaguers to come out of their system since 1997 (their last winning season): Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis, Sidney Ponson, Erik Bedard, and Matt Wieters.*
*Because I'm sure people will question this assertion, Jeremy Guthrie was originally drafted and developed by the Indians, before the Orioles claimed him off waivers. Daniel Cabrera, Luis Matos, Jorge Julio, John Maine, and Adam Loewen did all come up through the O's system, but if those are your honorable mentions, that's a pretty poor track record.
So can I blame people for overreacting and treating Wieters like a super prospect? No, certainly not. But I am somewhat disappointed that more people haven't noticed that four years later, he's finally become what everyone thought he could be: the best catcher in baseball.
When Wieters broke into the majors, he put up a .753 OPS in his first season -- rather disappointing (in light of expectations) until you consider that AL catchers posted an average OPS of .724. Since then, while his overall performance has fluctuated, he's steadily shown small improvement in his core batting skills.
Wieters used to strike out 4 percent more often than league average, but he's now striking out 2 percent less than average. He's also walking more often and hitting for more power, and his overall offensive performance last season was 10 percent better than league average.
And this season? It's certainly still early, but Wieters has picked up where he left off last year. His walk and strikeout rates are around the best they have ever been, and most importantly, he's flashing more power than ever before: seven home runs and 11 extra-base hits in only 93 plate appearances. Wieters' power potential was one of the most exciting things about him as a prospect, and if this trend continues, Wieters could improve his Isolated Power for the fourth straight season.
But the most impressive thing about Wieters isn't even his bat; it's his defense. Catcher defense is tough to quantify, but no matter what category or statistic you look at, Wieters is one of the best defensive catchers in the majors. He's great at blocking pitches; he throws out around 38 percent of baserunners trying to steal (one of the tops in the majors); and according to Mike Fast's pitch-framing research, Wieters is excellent at getting borderline pitches called strikes.
The above quote was originally uttered by Keith Law, and while Wieters took a long, slow road to success, it's time we acknowledged that he's become a legit star. He posted a +5 win season last season according to FanGraphs, making him an All-Star caliber player. Among catchers, only Mike Napoli posted a better season than him last year (+5.7 wins), and Wieters has taken his game to another level this year.
We should be skeptical of early-season results as a rule, but even if we expect Wieters to cool off to his last year's production over the rest of this season, he could flirt with a +6 win season and post two of the best back-to-back seasons from a catcher since Mike Piazza in 2000 and 2001 (+11 wins combined).
It's still quite early in the season, so who knows exactly if this is merely a small sample fluke, or a sign of things to come? But either way, Orioles fans have to be very happy with Matt Wieters right now. He's an all-star, a real threat in the middle of the lineup, and one of the best defensive catchers around.
Chuck Norris can't touch that.