Matt Wieters has had an interesting career, but he’s not a particularly interesting player. So before I talk about Matt Wieters, I must address the job of backup catcher. Specifically, the job of being the backup to Yadier Molina, Cardinals starter since 2005. It’s not a particularly difficult job. For one thing, you never play, which sure can be a negative. It’s not a negative when you’re bad, which most Cardinals backup catchers under Molina have been. And by most, I mean all.
Cardinal Backup Catchers
From 2005-2019, there were four players (besides Molina) with positive WAR with the Cardinals. One of them is LaRue. The other three are Matt Pagnozzi (133 wRC+ in 49 PAs, but career 73 wRC+ hitter in AAA), Eric Fryer (who had a 38 wRC+ in second year), and Cody Stanley (0.1 in 10 PAs, and he was quickly suspended for PEDs). Backup catchers in St. Louis have been horrible.
Enter Matt Wieters. Wieters in a weird way provides stability unseen since Cruz. As ridiculous as it seems (at least to me), Wieters could end 2020 with the third most plate appearances as a catcher since 2005 on the Cardinals. Take that stat in. Wieters has a chance - realistic chance! - to have the third most plate appearances among catchers on the Cardinals since 2005.
As shocking as that stat is, it might be more shocking that Wieters is even here. If you don’t remember, Wieters was the 5th overall pick in the 2007 draft. He rose through the system quickly. His minor league numbers are frankly absurd. They sent him to High A in 2008, where he had a 174 wRC+. He got promoted midseason to AA where he hit for a 190 wRC+. In 2009, he had a 146 wRC+ before being promoted to Baltimore. When he was promoted, he was the #1 prospect by Baseball Prospectus, John Sickels, Keith Law, Baseball America, and #2 by Jonathan Mayo. He was very close to being the consensus #1 prospect in baseball.
So such were the expectations when he was promoted as a 23-year-old catcher with the whole package. Those absurd offensive numbers in the minors... didn’t really translate. It didn’t matter as much because his defense was as advertised. From 2009-2013, he was a 97 wRC+ hitter, which is actually pretty good for a catcher. But because of his defense and his durability - he came to the plate an average of 556 times from 2010-2013 - he was worth 16.4 WAR in his first 4 and half seasons.
And then that durability just sort of went away. He played in 26 total games in 2014 and just 75 games in 2015. In his age 30 season, he finally played a full season again, but he was a shell of what he used to be. Instead of the +18.3 fielder he was at his peak, he was a -7 fielder when he became healthy again. So there he was, entering free agency for the first time, coming off a below average hitting season and with below average defense. It speaks to Wieter’s former status that he was able to land a 1 year, $10.5 million deal with a $10.5 million player option.
His bat fell apart in his first year with the Nationals. While he was never exactly the strongest hitter - .279 BABIP is probably to blame - he went from a career low 84 wRC+ to a 61 wRC+ in 2016. Wieters obviously chose to come back to the Nationals and he rebounded somewhat, with an 89 wRC+ which again, even in his peak years, he had a couple seasons below that, so he delivered offensively. But his defense never recovered the way his offense did.
And that’s how Wieters found himself with no offers when the Cardinals came calling. He was a below average hitting catcher primarily valued for his defense but with no defense anymore. But he was a perfect match with the Cardinals. Sure he wasn’t good at defense, but neither were the no bat Tony Cruz or Francisco Pena either, so honestly I’ll take what I can get. The list of players willing to sign up for 150 or less PAs is.. well it’s bad players.
And Wieters was on pace for a minuscule number of plate appearances. He may not have had a choice, but I’m not sure he’d be back if Yadi never got injured. From Opening Day until May 22nd, Wieters got a total of 26 PAs. He never walked, homered once, and hit seven singles. It came out to a 110 wRC+. Then Yadi got injured for about two weeks. In those two weeks, Wieters hit for a 37 wRC+ with 14 Ks in 40 PAs. He hit a slump at the wrong time.
Yadi came back. While very rarely playing, Wieters hit for a 106 wRC+, mostly because of two home runs. Yadi got injured again for a little over a month. He fared better this time with a 105 wRC+ with five homers in 71 PAs. For the rest of the year, Wieters had a 9 wRC+. This only came in 23 PAs and it was largely because of a .059 BABIP.
My point, in detailing Wieters season as a backup to Yadi and as a starter, is to say that his season defied narratives. He had three stretches as a backup to Yadi, and two stretches as a starter. Two of the three backup stretches went well, one went badly. He was a successful replacement for Yadi one of the two times, he was Francisco Peña the other time. The way it all shook out, he wasn’t a whole lot different from any of the other backup catchers, except marginally better.
2019 Stats - 67 G, 183 PAs, .214/.268/.435, 81 wRC+, .223 BABIP, 6.6 BB%, 25.7 K%, .220 ISO, -0.3 WAR
Few things to notice here that only really could apply to a backup catcher getting sporadic playing time. First thing is the absurd ISO. Now maybe he’s a different hitter now than he used to be, but do not expect anywhere near a .220 ISO. His previous career high was .192 and that was the season he played in 26 games. For a full season, it was .182. Now the ball was different, so a .220 ISO isn’t totally out of line, but these numbers are going to be six years ago, so it’d be silly to expect that. Secondly, while he has a career .279 BABIP, which means not to expect a .300 BABIP, he might get some more luck in 2020. Let’s see if ZiPS agrees with my conclusions.
ZiPS - 87 G, 298 PAs, .225/.289/.373, 74 wRC+, .258 BABIP, 7.7 BB%, 21.8 K%, .148 ISO, 0.4 WAR
Not as much as a BABIP boost as I was hoping, but they do foresee better plate discipline numbers, which should help. And yes, the ISO is waaay lower than his 2020, which is moderately disappointing. And go ahead and ignore that WAR number. It pencils in Wieters in for average defense, which he hasn’t had since 2013. Yes, 2013. I’m not going to guess his numbers, but let’s just say, with how his defense has been the last few years, this is easily a below replacement projection with a more accurate defensive projection.
But who knows? In as few PAs as he’s likely to get, maybe he’ll run a lucky BABIP, or maybe the ball has helped his game, or maybe he just has a randomly good year. While getting less than 200 PAs is probably bad for the player, it also means just about anything can happen, good or bad. Never forget Nick Punto’s 2011 season. Punto, a career 77 wRC+ hitter with a previous career high of 96, had a 125 wRC+ with the Cardinals in just 166 PAs. Give Wieters a full season, and I doubt he’d even have an above average line. But in 166 PAs? Who’s to say he can’t pull a Punto? Certainly not me.