Phillies Free Agent Preview: Matt Wieters


We’ve all heard the old adage, “Size matters.” Now, before your mind goes into the gutter (for shame…..for shaaaaaame), I am applying this adage in reference to the catching position in Major League Baseball.

Catchers who have a lot of size, i.e. height and/or weight, usually do not remain at the position. They are frequently moved to another position, such as 1st base to take advantage of their height, or right field, sometimes 3rd base, to take advantage of their throwing arm.

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Either way, it’s rare that a catcher can stay behind the dish if they are very tall. Out of curiosity, I looked to see how many tall catchers there have been in history.

Since 1901, there have only been twelve catchers to even make an appearance in a major league game who have been at or taller than 6’5″. Some of them only made a few plate appearances, but you get the idea – there aren’t that many.

Now if you lower the threshold for what constitutes “tall” to, say, the even 6’0″ mark, obviously more names start to show up. But to me, tall is TALL. So, I chose that “arbitrary” height to run my search. In case you’re wondering, and I know you are, the tallest players to catch a game were Pete Koegel and Don Gile, both 6’6″ in height.

Now of the twelve 6’5″+ catchers, how many provided positive offensive value? According to Baseball Reference and their wonderful Play Index, there have only been twelve seasons in which a catcher, 6’5″ or taller, has provided an OPS+ over 100. Seven of them belong to Joe Mauer, two to Larry McLean (1907, 1910), and one to Fran Healy (1974). We’ll get back to Mauer later.

So, who could the other two such seasons possibly belong to? You guessed it! None other than the subject of this next in our free agent preview series, Baltimore Orioles backstop Matt Wieters.

A native of Goose Greek, South Carolina, Wieters was a highly touted prospect coming out of Georgia Tech for the 2007 MLB Amateur Draft. Bonus concerns caused him to fall to Baltimore at the 5th overall pick.

After signing, Wieters began to tear up the minor leagues almost immediately. In 2008, he had a combined 1.053 OPS across three minor league levels, hitting 27 home runs and 91 RBI as a 22-year-old catcher.

The following season, with AAA Norfolk, Wieters hit .305/.387/.504 in 163 plate appearances before finally being called up to Baltimore. Several publications were so high in expressing their expectations for him, an ability to actually walk on water seemed a distinct possibility.

Once arriving in Baltimore in that summer of 2009, Wieters had a 96 OPS+ the rest of the way in 385 plate appearances. While the offense was none too shabby, he also distinguished himself by playing very good defense.

The following season, he began a little slowly, but was still better than the majority of catchers in the league, registering a 90 OPS+. In the handful of years since, however, Wieters has had just two strong seasons, one “okay” season, and one lost to injury.

He remains one of the better catchers in the league as he finally reaches free agency, but will be represented in that process by Scott Boras, who knows that his client is the top free agent catcher available.

What also makes him valuable is the point I was trying to get at in the opening paragraph: big catchers aren’t good hitters. History says so. And yet, Wieters is a good hitter. The potential $80 million questions: Can he remain behind the plate? Would he make a worthwhile addition as the Phillies rebuild?

Start with the pros. Adding Wieters’ bat to the lineup would help at a position where the offense has struggled over the last few years. His average 162-game slash line of .257/.318/.424 with 22 home runs, 81 RBI and 98 wRC+ would be an enormous upgrade over Carlos Ruiz and Cameron Rupp.

Those current Phillies catchers have combined to hit .224/.300/.303 for a 68 wRC+ in 2015, which is simply unacceptable. Ruiz, the team’s primary catcher for the last decade, has not had a productive offensive season since 2012, and will be 37-years old next year in what would be the final guaranteed season of Chooch’s contract.

Not only that, but Wieters’ defense, though slipping, is still pretty good. “He’s very good at blocking balls and controlling the running game, but his pitch framing is headed downhill quickly“, per Baseball Prospectus.

What’s more, the top catchers in the Phillies’ minor league system, such as Andrew Knapp, Deivi Grullon, and Gabriel Lino are still a few years away from contributing, so there will be no one to shift him off of the position any time soon.

There are some cons. The first is cost. Boras knows that Wieters is the top option available at his position on the free agent market, and will use Brian McCann‘s recent 5 year/$85 million contract as a guideline.

McCann and Wieters are similar in that they are bigger for the position than most, yet the strength of their bat implores their managers to keep them there because of the value they provide. The difference is that McCann had been a steady, solid contributor for 8 seasons before landing his contract, while Wieters only has 2.5 good seasons under his belt.

Their 2-year difference in age isn’t enough to help offset this either. While Boras probably knows that McCann was a better option, he will no doubt position Wieters as a talented backstop who will be fully recovered from elbow surgery, and primed to retake his place as the top backstop in the American League.

Another potential roadblock is the Phillies rebuilding plan. Can they be comfortable investing in Wieters as a player who can catch for the next 5 years?

I talked earlier about his height, and how that could affect him down the road. History suggests that there simply haven’t been many productive catchers who were tall for the position that remained behind the plate. The most recent example of this is Joe Mauer.

Mauer signed a massive contract extension with his hometown Minnesota Twins in 2011, and almost immediately began his shift to a new position. It was a shame, because much of his value came from his being a catcher who could hit.

Think back to Mauer’s AL MVP season in 2009. He hit .365/.444/.587 with 28 home runs and 96 RBI as a catcher. Want to know how many other catchers in history posted numbers like that? One, Mike Piazza in 1997 (.362/.431/.638). That defines big time value at a premium position. So why move him? It mostly had to do with concussions, but there was also some thought that eventually his size would have been a problem.

So, is Wieters as a catcher someone the Phillies should go after? In this writer’s opinion, the wisest move would be to pass on signing Wieters.

Even though the upgrade at the position is very tempting, the potential for a position change just isn’t worth it to me. Once Mauer moved to first base, his inability to hit for power greatly reduced his value. Since Wieters does have power in his skill set, he might be able to make it work should he become a first baseman.

But I  have to think that his size is a hindrance to his continuing to catch much longer. Then, his high-salaried presence would create a situation where he would be blocking other players, not the least of which could be Maikel Franco in the very near future. I’m just not sure it’s worth the potential short-term catching payoff.

Next up in this series will be another defensive difference maker, current Kansas City Royals left fielder Alex Gordon.