For the first time since 2009, the Orioles are entering the season without the prospective of Matt Wieters as their catcher. Drafted 5th overall in the 2007 MLB Draft, Wieters was projected early on to become “Joe Mauer [a very good offensive catcher at the time] with power”. He destroyed minor league pitching in 2008 and by end of May 2009, he joined the Orioles. Wieters held his own for several years as catcher and showed flashes of his potential as an offensive force. He was a part of the young core with Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Chris Tillman the O’s had which brought them to the postseason in 2012 for the first time since 1997. Unfortunately, the “Mauer with power” projection never really developed in him. Maybe it’s because of the high expectations Wieters had, but Orioles fans have regarded Wieters as a major disappointment despite him giving the team solid production for several years. While his offensive side stagnated, he was regarded as a good defensive catcher (he won the gold glove award in 2011 and 2012) despite being listed as 6′ 5″ tall. Since then however, Wieters catching skills have decreased significantly for two different reasons
- In 2014, he injured his throwing elbow which resulted in him getting Tommy John surgery. This surgery, usually for pitchers, has a recovery time of at least one year so Wieters was out of baseball for most of 2014 and half of 2015. While it appears that Wieters has fully recovered from the surgery (the percentage of runners he’s thrown out on the bases in 2016 matches the rates from pre TJ surgery), he has become more fragile and susceptible to injuries which damaged his value.
- In recent years, pitch tracking and other computer programs have made it possible to start recording aspects of the game which haven’t been measurable before. One such area is “pitch framing”. The idea is when a pitcher throws the ball, the umpire behind home plate usually relies on the positioning of the catcher’s mitt to tell if the pitch is a ball or strike (as a former umpire, I can say this is most definitely true). Catchers who are good at pitch framing may be able to catch a pitch, which should be called a ball, and position their glove such that the umpire believes it’s a strike. On the other hand, bad pitch framing may be something where the pitch should be called a strike but the catcher catches the ball such that the umpire thinks its a ball. Before the digital age, pitch framing was something which was never fully measured and was only observable by people attending games. In today’s game, digital technology allows us to measure the movement of a catcher’s mitt and see whether or not it affected the pitch’s call or not. When Wieters won his gold gloves, it was primarily before pitching framing as a science caught on. Now that we have studied pitch framing, we can see that Wieters is actually pretty bad at it. According to StatCorner, Wieters hasn’t been above-average at pitch framing since 2011 and he has been steadily worse each season since.
All together, Wieters developed into a league-average hitter with decreasing defensive capabilities. So it’s no real surprise that the Orioles let Wieters go to free agency following the 2016 season. And as of this day, he still isn’t signed by a team.
EDIT: (Feb 23) Wieters signed a 2 year/$21 million deal (opt-out after year 1) with the Washington Nationals on Tuesday, Feb 21. I am happy that he signed a deal but I have mixed feelings with him signing with the Nationals (I’ve never really warmed up to the Nationals since they moved from Montreal to Washington).
So what are the Orioles doing about catching this season? Their backup catcher from last year (Caleb Joseph) is still with the team, but he isn’t seen as a serious option as the every day catcher (more on him later). They have a young catcher in the minors (Chance Sisco) who is close to being ready for the majors, but he is still a year or two away. Therefore the Orioles entered the offseason looking for an inexpensive catcher who will stick around for the next year or two. The O’s found that in Welington Castillo, whom they signed in mid December to a 1 year deal at $6 million ($7 million player option for 2018). Entering his age 30 season, Castillo has been under the radar as an offensive catcher. Since 2015, he is 4th among active catchers in Slugging Percentage (SLG) and 6th in On-Base Plus Slugging (OPS) (minimum 800 plate appearances and 50% of games at catcher). For comparison, Wieters is 13th in both SLG and OPS these past two seasons. Following table displays these numbers as well as comparisons to other top hitting catchers.
|ranking in SLG||2015-2016 seasons||SLG||OPS|
In addition, Castillo has been sixth among active catchers in baseball-reference WAR (wins above replacement) since 2013 at 9.7. For comparison, Wieters has been 21st among catchers in this time period with 3.9.
For those not familiar, WAR is a modern statistic that attempts to measure the total contribution of a player (offensively and defensively). It has been normalized to represent the number of wins a player brings to a team in comparison to a “replacement” level player playing that same position. For example, 5 WAR means you bring five more wins to your team than a replacement level player would. Usually, WAR of 3+ is all-star level and WAR 5+ is MVP level.
Bottom line is that Castillo isn’t a slouch at the plate and would most likely bring more offensive production than Wieters would this upcoming season. However its questionable whether Castillo is an upgrade defensively over Wieters. Reports appear to indicate that like Wieters, Castillo isn’t great at pitch framing. In addition, Castillo allowed 10 passed balls last year (tied for National League lead) and committed seven errors last year (tied for fourth most in NL). But compared to Wieters (who committed eleven errors last year) this may not be that much of a downgrade. It’s also interesting to note that Castillo’s arm may be on par with Wieters:
- Castillo : threw out 24 of 64 base runners in 2016 (38% caught-stealing rate)
- Wieters : threw out 23 of 66 base runners in 2016 (35% caught-stealing rate)
(For comparision, league average was 28%)
I have not observed Castillo closely these past few seasons so I cannot put in my personal input on what I’ve seen. All I can say is that these statistics suggest that Castillo will be a slight upgrade over Wieters offensively and, at worst, on par with Wieters defensively. Compared to Wieters asking price tag (around $15 million per year), signing Castillo made perfect sense for the O’s.
It’s also worth mentioning the (probable) backup catcher for the Orioles, Caleb Joseph. Drafted by the O’s in 2008, Joseph didn’t make it to the majors until 2014 when he replaced the injured Wieters for the rest of the season. Unlike Wieters and Castillo, Joseph has earned great reputation as an above-average defensive catcher. In particular, Joseph has above-average pitch framing skills . His defensive skills were (I believed) far superior to that of Wieters to the point where I was suggesting the O’s make Joseph their full-time catcher instead of Wieters (didn’t really happen).
Joseph’s biggest weakness is his bat. He has never put up great offensive numbers in the majors (which is ironic given that he was known as an offensive catcher while in the minors). However he was REMARKABLY bad last year.
In 141 plate appearances, he batted .174, slugged .197, and only had three extra base hits
But here is the most remarkable part about his past season: in 141, he had ZERO RBIs (you read that right, zero). This breaks the MLB record (post 1920) set by pitcher Wilbur Wood in 1971 (no RBI’s in 124 plate appearances). I really don’t think Caleb is THAT bad that he would repeat these numbers next season. But it does reveal the offensive limitations Joseph has which justifies why he is just a backup catcher (I concede this).