This is something that's been on my mind the past couple weeks, and the May edition of Matt's Catcher Defense Rankings has forced me to harp on the idea. When Orioles catcher Matt Wieters arrived in the majors a couple years ago, people expected stardom from practically the beginning. Wieters seemingly had it all: elite scouting reports, dominant minor league numbers, an exceptional pedigree and statistical projections that affirmed Wieters' status as a truly special young player.
And yet, one couldn't qualify Wieters' first couple years in the majors as anything but disappointing. Over the course of the 2009 and 2010 seasons, Wieters batted just .266/.328/.393. Guys like Yadier Molina and Yorvit Torrealba had put up stronger offensive numbers than that. So people were understandably disappointed that someone who had once been described as a "Joe Mauer-like player with more power potential" was posting below-average offensive numbers.
But you know what? People shouldn't be disappointed with Wieters. Not in the least. Sure, the Orioles probably don't have a once-in-a-generation franchise player on their hands. But they still might, and even if they don't, Wieters is still proving to be one of the best catchers in baseball. People continue to point to Wieters' underwhelming offensive numbers as an indication that he's failing to live up to the hype, but combined with some truly impressive work behind the plate, the 2007 first-round pick is performing like one of the best backstops in the game.
Yeah, it's easy to look at the catcher's ugly .232 batting average and assume that he's still not making major strides as a hitter in his third MLB season. But his walk rate is up to 10.2% from 9.4% last season, and hitting the ball on the ground less often has enabled Wieters to hit for significantly more power than he did in his first two seasons with the O's. ZiPS actually projects Wieters to improve from here given that his BABIP is pretty low at .257 so far this season; the major bump in his BABIP pushes his rest-of-the-season projection to .267/.338/.412, which is more than solid for a catcher.
And while most of the praise laid upon Wieters as he entered the majors was focused on how unique his offensive prowess was for a catcher, it's the catcher's defensive work that's proving to be his strongest asset so far in his career. In Mr. Klaasen's rankings, which were posted on BtB earlier yesterday, Wieters currently comes up as the best defensive catcher in baseball. UZR does a less sophisticated version of catcher defense evaluation for FanGraphs, and he comes up at +2 so far through that method, compared to +5.7 through Matt's method.
Whether you consider Wieters to be an above-average defender behind the plate, like UZR suggests, or an elite defender behind the plate, like Matt's rankings suggest, Wieters comes out looking like a star-level player. If he maintains his current performance (using UZR's +2 evaluation of his defense) and meets his ZiPS playing time projection, he'll accumulate roughly 4.8 WAR this season. And that's assuming that UZR's evaluation of his defense is more accurate than Matt's, and he won't improve like ZiPS projects from him. If you use his improved, in-season ZiPS projected line and the average of the defensive evaluations from UZR and Matt, he'll be on pace to accumulate nearly 6.0 WAR this season.
So yeah, I suppose there are still some reasons to feel like Wieters is a disappointment. But most of those reasons are related to the hyperbole that surrounded his reputation as he entered the league, because expecting Wieters to immediately become the next Johnny Bench was never a reasonable expectation. He may not be Joe Mauer with more power, no. But he's an excellent defensive catcher with some nice pop that gets on base at a solid clip. And given the state of the catcher position in the majors today, that makes Wieters one of the better players in the game.