It's Matt Wieters' time
Baltimore's 25-year-old backstop emerging as one of baseball's best
BALTIMORE -- Baltimore Orioles catcher Matt Wieters will earn $500,000 this season -- or $3,086.42 per game -- and he'll never make a more compelling case that he's underpaid than he did Sunday afternoon and evening at Fenway Park. On his way to helping the Orioles win 9-6 for a series sweep of the Red Sox, Wieters bonded with nine pitchers over 17 innings and stood tall under duress to slap a tag on Marlon Byrd during a pivotal sequence in the bottom of the 16th.
Wieters' most impressive performance might have come on the bus ride to Logan Airport after the final out. Pitchers Darren O'Day, Tommy Hunter, Matt Lindstrom and Jim Johnson peppered him with questions about the marathon game, and Wieters fought through dehydration and sore quads to recall the minutest details. It was the baseball equivalent of Bubba Watson recounting every fade, draw and gap wedge shot 30 minutes after the green jacket ceremony in Butler Cabin.
"We were just firing questions at him," says O'Day. "Was this pitch a strike? What did you think on this pitch? And as soon as you ask him a question, he's spitting out the answer. He's already thought it through and remembers every second of it. I can't remember what the hell I threw, and I only threw  pitches. He caught 250."
Actually, Wieters caught 250 pitches from accredited big league pitchers and 23 more from first baseman-DH Chris Davis for a total of 273. But who keeps track when you're having this much fun?
The performance might not help Wieters pad his All-Star vote total, but it does provide a glimpse into the priorities of a former bonus baby and top prospect who's taking the not-so-scenic route to stardom. Catching is a dirty business, and Wieters is making an impact one foul tip, one blocked ball in the dirt and one relationship at a time.
The guy can also hit. Through Baltimore's first 30 games, Wieters leads big league catchers with a .961 OPS and 58 total bases, and he's tied for first with Texas' Mike Napoli with seven homers. He's done it while displaying the skills that earned him his first Gold Glove and a Fielding Bible award as baseball's best defensive catcher in 2011. It's no accident the Orioles have allowed 12 stolen bases, fourth fewest in the game, and cut down 43 percent of attempted steals, tied for the fourth-best percentage in the majors.
In the big picture, it's only fitting that Wieters should enjoy a breakthrough year at age 25. Now that Jorge Posada, Jason Varitek and Ivan Rodriguez have taken their eight World Series rings, 22 All-Star appearances and combined 5,171 starts behind the plate and headed off into retirement, someone has to help fill the void.
Wieters has a chance to become the best all-around catcher in baseball, if he's not there already. Atlanta's Brian McCann is a six-time All-Star at age 28, but lacks the defensive pedigree of Wieters. Yadier Molina, a tremendous defender, turns 30 in July and didn't start hitting at an elite level until last season. Joe Mauer and Buster Posey also belong in the conversation, and Carlos Santana, Alex Avila and Miguel Montero have a chance to accomplish some impressive things if they stay healthy. But this is not a golden age for catchers, so the list of names under consideration is going to be brief.
Four years and 392 games into Wieters' big league career, his teammates are certainly on board.
"He's one of the top three catchers in the game, when you look at what he brings offensively and defensively," says Orioles center fielder Adam Jones. "He's 6-5 and 240 pounds and he has hands like a damn middle infielder. He blocks the ball, he blocks the plate and you can't run him over. I know he wants to be the best major league catcher, and he's on his way to doing it in my opinion."
O'Day, a sidearm reliever who has pitched for the Angels, Mets, Rangers and Orioles, goes a step further.
"He had a particularly good day recently, and I told him, 'Of all the catchers I've caught, you're my favorite,"' O'Day says. "I threw to Pudge and Bengie Molina, and they were both great catchers. But in terms of blocking and game-calling, Matt is awesome. You can see how nice a target he presents back there. When you sit in the bullpen, you think every pitch is a strike because of how good his hands are."
It's been five years since Wieters came out of Georgia Tech as the No. 5 selection in the draft, carrying a "Joe Mauer with power" tag and the buildup that a $6 million signing bonus and the Scott Boras "special player" designation can bring. Before making his first All-Star team last year, he was a victim of unwieldy expectations and premature snap judgments.
The hype was manifested in a website, mattwietersfacts.com, that riffed off a popular Chuck Norris gag and gushed over Wieters' ability to throw lasers on a string to second base, alter the course of humanity and leap the B&O Warehouse in a single bound. The Keith Law line, "Sliced Bread is Actually the Best Thing Since Matt Wieters," made it onto a T-shirt, and the website's intro read thusly:
"Before reporting to Camden Yards, Matt Wieters traveled through the time-space continuum and righted all the wrongs in Orioles history: He wiped Cleon Jones' shoe polish off the ball, settled the 1981 baseball strike so they could win the division, straight-jacketed Jeffrey Maier and intercepted Roberto Alomar's loogie before it hit its mark."
It didn't take long for the hype to fizzle. In 2011, Baseball Prospectus writer Steven Goldman included Wieters on a list with Mike Ivie, Al Chambers, Ruben Rivera and Andy Marte as one of baseball's 50 most disappointing prospects of all time. Goldman deserved points for chutzpah, but he appears to have jumped the gun, given that Wieters was 24 years old and had 800 big league at-bats on his résumé at the time.
Wieters' apparent ease in shrugging off personal slights is a tribute to his low-maintenance personality and his upbringing. His father, Richard, played baseball in a military school environment at the Citadel before spending five years in the minors as a pitcher with the Braves and White Sox. While young Matt never had to wake up at 5 a.m. and do hospital corners, he learned the importance of industriousness and focus. A bad day today merely served as an incentive to do better tomorrow.
"My family thinks I'm too calm sometimes, but that's the way I function," Wieters says. "I try not to worry too much about good press or bad press, because you're going to get both. It's life. It's baseball. You're going to have ups and downs."
A lot of people run from responsibility. Matt takes it on. He doesn't want to be 'the guy.' He just wants to be what the team needs.” -- Orioles manager Buck Showalter
Conventional wisdom holds that catchers make the best managers because they can relate to two baseball species -- pitchers and hitters -- who speak different languages. Wieters had the added advantage of pitching at Georgia Tech, where he went 5-10 with 16 saves and a 3.83 ERA as a reliever. His time on the mound substantiated his belief in the importance of two-way communication between battery mates. No matter how nasty a pitcher's slider is, it's not going to work if he has more conviction that the four-seam fastball is the better pitch in a certain situation.
At Stratford High School in Goose Creek, S.C., Wieters played on the same team with future big leaguer Justin Smoak and grew accustomed to calling his own pitches. But at Georgia Tech, pitches were usually called from the bench.
"I got to call two games in college. The first game I called a two-hitter, and the second game we gave up 15 runs," Wieters says, laughing. "I had my shot, but I didn't quite carry it through all the way."
As a rookie in Baltimore, Wieters routinely cued up 40-50 video clips of each hitter for insights. Now that he's more familiar with AL rosters, he can afford to pick his spots. But manager Buck Showalter said it's not uncommon for him to be at the park by 11 a.m. to prepare for a night game. Wieters has had the luxury of learning from Jeff Datz and John Russell, two excellent catching instructors, and he has grilled them the same way Baltimore's pitchers grilled him on that bus.
How emotionally invested is Wieters in his defense? When asked which accomplishment would thrill him more -- hitting four home runs and catching a one-hitter, or going 0-for-4 and catching a no-hitter -- he barely has to think.
"Four bombs would be nice," he says, "but I'd take the no-hitter. That would be pretty special."
He's no burner
Wieters hit 22 homers last season and slugged .504 after the All-Star break, so his impressive start isn't exactly a bolt from the blue. Improved patience is one factor in his success. According ESPN Stats & Information, he's chasing 22 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, compared to 31 percent in 2011. He's also hitting .262 (11-for-42) with two strikes, compared to .184 in two-strike counts over the previous three seasons. He's fouling off borderline pitches or taking a pass, then teeing off when he sees something he can drive.
If Wieters has an Achilles heel, it's his Molina-esque speed on the bases. Given his size, he might be more comparable to Mark Parent.
"The only thing he lacks is stride length," Jones says. "I swear he's got the stride of somebody who's 5-foot-8. I get on him all the time about it."
After legging out his third career three-bagger against Boston -- the team he also victimized for his only career stolen base in 2011 -- Wieters wasn't too winded to crack a joke when the lineup card was posted the next day and he saw himself penciled in at DH.
"He said, 'Do they really expect me to play a day game after a triple?"' Showalter says.
Wieters started 25 games at catcher and two more at DH during Baltimore's 19-11 start, and the Orioles have to resist the temptation to ride him too hard. Showalter calls Wieters the "best tagger in the game" because of his fundamentally sound approach and ability to handle a catcher's mitt with such dexterity. But the O's have told him to exercise discretion when a home-plate collision might be hazardous to his health.
Showalter is trusting enough in Wieters' professionalism to stay out of the way and let him chart his own path to success.
"A lot of people run from responsibility," Showalter says. "Matt takes it on. He doesn't want to be 'the guy.' He just wants to be what the team needs. He's a winning player, but more important, he's a winning person. He's the kind of guy you'd like to see daughter walk through door with and say, 'Dad, this is who I'm marrying."'
From now until at least 2015, when he has six full years of service time, Wieters will be married to the Orioles and intent on bringing about a baseball resurgence in Baltimore. 'Til death or free agency do they part.
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