I was so pleased to hear from a pen-pal I had given up for dead. The long-anticipated note came last night:
Still haven't heard you retract your comments about Wieters being a bust. Also haven't heard you admit that you are nothing but a hack who doesn't deserve the job you have.
You judged him to be a bust on less than 2 years experience. You truly know absolutely NOTHING about baseball.
I hear McDonald's is hiring.
Eighteen months ago, I began a series on the most disappointing prospects of all time. For reasons that will become clear in a moment, I want to emphasize that that was the exact title, "The Most Disappointing Prospects of All Time." Further definition: "These would not be players who were overdrafted, but rather those who seemed on their way to justifying high picks and large bonuses when apparent destiny was denied." I did four installments, mostly focusing on players from the mid- to long-range past who were hyped prospects but, for various reasons from injury to "It's a mystery!" failed to live up to their advance billing. Cameron Drew, Bobby Valentine (yes, that Bobby V), Danny Goodwin, Scott Ruffcorn, and many others were found in my misfit's menagerie. I even went as far back as 1912 and Paul Strand.
In an effort to anchor my series in the present day, at the end of each chapter I intentionally rushed to judgment and picked a still-young player who could reasonably be declared a disappointment right here and now, without the benefit of hindsight. I chose Brandon Wood, who spent this year putting up mediocre numbers at Colorado Springs after hitting .186/.225/.289 in the majors -- didn't have to crawl out on a limb for that one; Cameron Maybin, who, I think it is fair to say, is simultaneously useful but far from the All-Star type he was expected to be, even taking Petco Park into account; Alex Gordon, on whom I plum missed-a .244/.328/.405 hitter without a position entering his age-27 season, Gordon has since proved to be the rare late bloomer (though I would still argue that on a career basis, "disappointing" still applies); and finally, and here is the tough one, I named Matt Wieters.
Here is how I justified that listing. The date was March 1, 2011, so the regular season was still a month away:
As we were among the first to hop on the Wieters bandwagon, let us be among the first off of it. The backstop is heading into his age-25 season. Whatever his .343/.438/.576 rates seemed to portend, that's gone, along with the notion that he's a switch-hitter (he has hit .230/.278/.344 from the right side) or a power hitter. His glove and the dream of what might have been will keep him around for years, but stardom now seems spectacularly unlikely.
(That first sentence is a reference to a rather infamous PECOTA projection. In a moment of irrational exuberance, the system looked at Wieters' minor league stats as of the end of the 2008 season and proclaimed that the backstop would hit .311/.395/.544 as a major league virgin. "Really?" I asked. "Really," I was told, and so we soldiered on.)
The day the piece was published, my inbox exploded in protest, and stayed exploded for the rest of the year. A typical response, which came months later:
You REALLY nailed that Wieters is an all-time bust! Bottom Line is that he is the best fielding catching with no passed balls / best arm /calls a great game. While no one will confuse Matt with Joe Mauer-in terms of hitting, keep in mind his hitting production is about 3rd or 4th best for all catchers in the AL. Russell Martin-now there's a piece of sh*t!-W
My response, just to clarify my argument one more time:
I'm very happy for Wieters' many defenders that they found a great defensive catcher under their Christmas tree, but that's not what they were looking for. If it were, the Orioles could have saved their bonus money four years ago and signed Henry Blanco for the major league minimum. This was a first-round draft-pick, rated the best amateur position player in the country at the time of his selection, who hit .343/.438/.576 in the minor leagues. That the Orioles wound up with a potential Gold Glover who is also an average-at-best hitter is the consolation prize, not something to crow about. The man was supposed to be a switch-hitting Yogi Berra and you got Jim Sundberg instead... Sundberg was a good, useful player, and so is Wieters, but neither deserves to be called a star. A star is what Wieters gave signs of being. I accurately labeled him a disappointment, and a disappointment he shall remain.
On the theory that something is better than nothing we'll score that a win, but let's face it, W, the player did not live up to advanced billing. Retroactively ratcheting down expectations is dishonest. If you could go back to 2009 and ask people if they would be disappointed if Wieters turned out to be a good fielder with an average-to-below-average bat, you know what they would have said. They would have wept openly and then soiled your shoes.
Over time, as people grew up, got married, had children, aged, and died, the hostile responses dropped off, Baltimore radio stopped calling, people ceased whispering my name in Wieters' ear to see how he would react (I am reliably informed that this did happen, and for all I know he is still laying for me), and life went on... Except for one guy. This one writer still takes the time to remind me of what an incompetent loser I am for calling Wieters "a bust," which of course I didn't; I called him a disappointment. But let us not quibble: I have gotten enough of these responses using the word "bust" that I give up on that score; paraphrasing "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," when the legendary bust becomes fact, print the bust.
See, I've grown used to the attention; Wieters' defenders are like ardent lovers. I miss those notes when I don't get them for awhile. The pattern is actually predictable: if Wieters has a hot month, as he did in April, I get a note. If he has a big game, as he did two days ago, I get another note. If he hits .188, as he did in May, or .205, as he did in July, the fair-weather boosters go scurrying for cover and my inbox remains a lonely, barren place. That's what happened at the height of the summer. Wieters slumped, so his defenders did as well. Note that Wieters followed up his big Monday by going 0-for-7 on Tuesday night; if my pen-pal had just waited for all 18 innings to be played, he might have tried to restrain his excitement instead of going off half-cocked and firing a premature missive. I'm so happy he was unable to hold back; a guy gets lonely without his fans. Or detractors. Or women.
The funny thing is, I still think I was right. Wieters is no bust, but he's also not Johnny Bench or Mickey Cochrane, which is what both the scouts and his own performance attested to. He's a strong defender and a decent hitter for a catcher. As ranked by Baseball Prospectus's True Average, last year he was the 11th-best bat among backstops with 300 or more plate appearances. This year, he's 10th. I just happened to look at who ranked 10th 30 years ago. It was Jim Sundberg. Does anyone under the age of 40 even remember Jim Sundberg today?
The most fascinating thing to happen to Wieters, now hitting .248/.330/.436, is that his hitting profile seems to have changed. As referenced above, through the end of 2010 he couldn't hit right-handed, but was a solid .283/.351/.415 hitter from the lefts side of the plate. This split has more than reversed itself: since opening day 2011 through Monday's game, Wieters has hit only .231/.299/.391 against right-handers, but .329/.418/.601 against left-handers.
Could Wieters, now 26, put together both halves of his swing someday and be all that was expected of him? Sure, and I hope he does; this is not the kind of thing I like being right about. I'd like to see a Yadier Molina defender with a Mike Piazza bat (actually, Molina himself is not too far off this year). Until that happens, I am certain of three things: Wieters is good, not great, and therefore fairly described as disappointing, which (altogether now) is far from the same as saying he is without value; that I will get more friendly emails whenever he has a good game, but, given that the guy is coming off of the aforementioned 0-for-7 with three strikeouts and four runners left on base, I'm pretty sure I won't be getting any mail today.
I hate solitude; if only I had called Derek Jeter a bust, then I'd never want for company.