Is Matt Wieters the best all-around catcher in O's history? - BaltimoreBaseball.com

Dan Connolly

Is Matt Wieters the best all-around catcher in O’s history?

Photo credit: Joy R. Absalon

Although it won’t be official until he signs elsewhere, the reality is Matt Wieters’ career as an Oriole is over. He’ll almost certainly play for someone else in 2017, after being behind the plate for the Orioles since 2009.

It seems like this news has been met with shrugs by a lot of Orioles fans, who respected Wieters as a man and a leader, but felt he was a bit of a disappointment on the field.

I guess that’s understandable considering the hype that accompanied Wieters when he was drafted fifth overall by the Orioles in 2007 and cruised through the minors. He was supposed to be the next Johnny Bench, or “Joe Mauer with power” or, as his buddy Adam Jones once said jokingly, “Jesus in shin guards.”

Wieters didn’t soar to those lofty expectations – no one could. What he did was become a four-time All-Star – most appearances in O’s history for a catcher — a respected voice in the clubhouse and a clutch performer when a big play was needed. (According to the advanced metric, “win probability added/clutch,” Wieters’ production in high-leverage situations is sixth all-time for any Oriole with at least 200 games played. Not surprisingly, Eddie Murray’s is the highest.)

The argument easily can be made that Wieters is the greatest all-around catcher in modern-day Orioles history. At the very least, he’s in the conversation. Study a little deeper, and he probably leads the candidates in that conversation – but it is a fun and relatively close argument.

With all due respect to Andy Etchebarren, who spent 12 seasons with the Orioles and made two All-Star teams, there really are just four men who can lay claim to the “best O’s catcher” title: Wieters, Rick Dempsey, Chris Hoiles and Gus Triandos.

If the question was most beloved or most important, Dempsey would win hands down. The current broadcaster for MASN played the most games behind the plate for the Orioles: 1,230 – 411 more than anyone else.

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Triandos played in 953 games for the Orioles, but caught 784. Hoiles is second on the franchise list of games caught with 819 and Wieters third with 812. Etchebarren is fifth with 752.

Because of his longevity, Dempsey leads all other Orioles’ catchers in plate appearances, hits doubles and, believe it or not, steals (16 in his Orioles’ career). He also played in two World Series with the team and was the MVP the last time the Orioles won the world championship in 1983. He’s the only one of the four to play in a World Series with the Orioles. And Dempsey, who was with the club from 1976-86 and again in 1992, was exceptionally popular because of his infectious enthusiasm and love of life.

But was he the greatest Orioles’ all-around catcher?

Well, offensively, Dempsey was challenged. He readily admits that. His slash line in 12 seasons with the Orioles is the worst among the four candidates: a .238 average, .319 on-base percentage and .355 slugging. His 75 homers are fourth of the four – there was a reason he batted eighth or ninth in an overwhelming number of big-league games (all offensive numbers in this piece are for their Orioles’ careers and not solely while in the lineup as catcher).

Dempsey took pride in calling a game and he threw out 40 percent of would-be baserunners as an Oriole – an impressive number. He compiled a 14.1 defensive WAR (wins above replacement) and an overall WAR of 21.3 in 12 seasons as an Oriole.

Dempsey never made an All-Star team, and neither did Hoiles, who is the best offensive catcher in club history. Hoiles, who played 10 seasons from 1989 to 1998, is the franchise’s all-time leading catcher in homers (151), walks (435) and on-base-plus slugging (.833). He has the best WAR of any Oriole catcher with a 23.4. That includes a 6.8 WAR in a splendid 1993 campaign in which he hit 29 homers and batted .310 with a .416 on-base percentage and .585 slugging, all career highs. His career on-base percentage was .366, and we all know how great he was with the bases loaded (eight homers, .386 average, 75 RBIs, one double play in 77 plate appearances).

Pitchers loved throwing to Hoiles, but defensive metrics weren’t particularly kind to him. He never had a defensive WAR over 1.3 and his career caught-stealing percentage of 28 was lower than league average (32 percent) during his career.

The only Orioles catcher besides Wieters to make at least three All-Star games was Triandos, the franchise’s first breakout star. Gus Tremendous, as he was nicknamed, played in Baltimore from 1955 to 1962. He was an All Star in 1957, 1958 and 1959 and finished 11th in AL MVP voting in 1958, when he became the first Oriole to hit the 30-homer mark.

No Oriole catcher drove in more runs (517) than Triandos, who slashed .249/.326/.424 in his eight seasons with the franchise. No one was slower, either. He hit into 106 double plays and stole just one base in his career.

Triandos had a tremendous arm, throwing out 47 percent of would-be basestealers in his career, including a league best 67 percent in 1957. The statistical knock on Triandos’ defense is pretty obvious. He allowed 138 passed balls, leading the league three times in the dubious category. But that wasn’t all his fault. The plodding Triandos caught knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm 113 times, a disastrous assignment that gave Triandos nightmares. He had a career WAR of 13.0 and a 2.0 defensive WAR with the Orioles

In comparison, Wieters has had just 19 passed balls and a 7.0 defensive WAR in his career so far. His 33 percent caught-stealing rate is better than the 27 percent league average during his tenure in Baltimore.

Offensively, Wieters has been good, not great. He has a slash line of .256/.318/.421. He is third all-time among Orioles catchers in homers and RBIs, and likely would have been top in both categories if he would have played two or three more seasons with the team. His career WAR is 16.3, which is slightly below Hoiles’ per season average, but higher than Dempsey’s and Triandos’.

Basically, you can massage the numbers however you want. If you lean toward offense, Hoiles may get the nod. If you go with accomplishments, longevity and importance, it’s Dempsey. If you want power, run production and arm strength, it might be Triandos.

But if you are putting everything together, the offense, the defense, the clutch ability, the leadership, etc., Wieters is probably the guy.

He played fewer total games than the other four as an Oriole – 12 fewer than Hoiles, 71 fewer than Triandos and 363 fewer than Dempsey – but stacks up well against them all.

So, he may have not have been the second coming in shin guards, but Wieters should go down as either the best or one of the best to put the shin guards on in Baltimore.

21 Comments

21 Comments

  1. bill-s

    December 19, 2016 at 7:55 am

    Interesting discussion. Hard to choose. But I would have liked Etchebarren to be included in the discussion. He caught in FOUR World Series and handled some outstanding pitching staffs, including a very young one in 1966.

    • Dan Connolly

      December 19, 2016 at 10:19 am

      The thing about Etch is once Earl came in and brought in his favorite, Elrod, Etch became part of a platoon. So he was only the starter for a couple years. The rest were full-time guys for extended periods.

  2. Bancells Moustache

    December 19, 2016 at 7:56 am

    I sense a donnybrook is about to start between the stat guys and those like myself, who readily admit we’re selling jeans here. Wieters did fine work in Baltimore and deserves a plaque out behind the scoreboard. Yet, with all due respect to Matt, his resume does not feature printed in bold letters 1983 WORLD SERIES MVP. Certain statistics must be weighted, and that one in particular weighs the same as an M1 Abrams Tank. It’s Dempsey. Nevermind the All-Star appearances, and the advanced framing metrics and blah blah blah. He who has jewels makes the rules (and gets the restaurant named after them). Dempsey by a wide margin.

    • Dan Connolly

      December 19, 2016 at 10:23 am

      You are right, Stache. Stats versus narrative. Dempsey was a limited hitter. But as my Dad said as we discussed this last night, “Dempsey hit when he had to.” He’s obviously in your camp.

  3. Boog Robinson Robinson

    December 19, 2016 at 8:41 am

    I’m with ‘Stache on this one. Dempsey by the narrowest of margins. I do believe that Wieters is better all around, however considering the world series accomplishments and longevity, the nod goes to The Dipper in my mind.

    Note: Even I am too young to remember Triandos.

    • Dan Connolly

      December 19, 2016 at 10:24 am

      Triandos was really good too. And I think Hoiles is the most underrated — no All Star nods for him on that stacked team of the mid-90s. Fun discussion I hope.

      • Boog Robinson Robinson

        December 19, 2016 at 1:25 pm

        One other catcher I thought of was Mickey Tettleton.

        • Bancells Moustache

          December 19, 2016 at 4:50 pm

          I’ll raise a glass to the Mick, if only to salute goofball batting stances and wads of chewing tobacco so large they had several moons orbiting them.

  4. OsFanStuckInNY

    December 19, 2016 at 10:19 am

    I vaguely remember Triandos. Slowwww, but cannon arm shooting ducks on the pond. As much as I rooted for Etchebarren, he was a rally killer at the plate. Loved Dempsey’s ‘tude. Loved Hendricks’ and Hoiles’ bats. Appreciated Wieters.
    But….my all-time favorite:
    SAKATA!

    • Dan Connolly

      December 19, 2016 at 10:55 am

      Yeah, Lenny missed the 200-game cutoff for this piece by roughly 199 games. But what a game.

  5. pedro

    December 19, 2016 at 10:48 am

    All-star appearances are not a good metric. It’s relative, based on your competition at the position at the time. Matt did not have to compete with Ivan Rodriquez or Sandy Alomar Jr, as did Hoiles.
    Maybe it was because he has been with Boras from the beginning, but I always got the impression that Matt was ticketed to leave, and it was hard for me to love the guy (in a baseball fan way) because of that. Call me naive or unfair if you like.

    • Dan Connolly

      December 19, 2016 at 10:56 am

      Definitely not a sound metric, especially for comparison’s sake, but still an indication of being pretty solid. One thing I learned about Matt over the years is that he really is his own man. He listens. But his decisions are his.

    • Bancells Moustache

      December 19, 2016 at 12:57 pm

      I’m with you, Pedro, ASG appearances only count for so much especially at catcher. In the era of the fan vote, if you play a position that is normally bereft of superstar talent and they stick you on the cover of Sports Illustrated before you’ve really done anything, you’ve pretty much been spotted at least 2 free ASG appearances just for having your picture taken.

  6. Steve Cockey

    December 19, 2016 at 11:12 am

    I’d go with Hoiles, as his offensive numbers are hard to ignore. A .366 career OBP? That’s 15th in club history, and all the way up to 6th if you only look at guys with 3000+ PAs. His .467 SLG? 16th in club history, also up to 6th for only those with 3000+ PAs. The guy is one of the better hitters in O’s history, regardless of position. That puts him at the top of the catching ranks for me.

    • Bancells Moustache

      December 19, 2016 at 1:03 pm

      I’m a Hoiles man myself Steve, though I have given my vote to Dempsey for reasons listed above. 23 was the guy I tried to emulate as a young backstop in the 1990s. I would argue, and this might be a good Taproom topic for you and Dan to kick around, Hoiles might be the most underrated player in Orioles history.

    • Steve Cockey

      December 19, 2016 at 2:07 pm

      Great topic there, Richie. And I’d agree on how underrated he is. I didn’t realize just how good his offensive numbers were until looking. Sneaky good. 8th highest OPS in club history for those with 2000+ PAs. Better than Boog, Singleton, Jones, Manny. And at a premium defensive position, nonetheless.

  7. pedro

    December 19, 2016 at 11:49 am

    I respect Matt, of course. However, the difference between Russell Martin and Matt was on full display during the playoff game. Martin pulled in so many pitches just off the black, and got the call. With Matt, not so much. Maybe Martin is just very skilled at that, but he put his pitchers in much more favorable counts.
    He won’t get close to the deal Martin got with the Jays. IMO, Matt should have taken a 3 year deal with the O’s.

    • Dan Connolly

      December 19, 2016 at 1:21 pm

      Like I said, it’s gonna be interesting to see what Boras lands. Would blow my mind if Jason Castro gets a deal better than Matt. Blow my feeble mind.

  8. pjclark4

    December 19, 2016 at 4:48 pm

    Not sure who I would go with, but I think if we are debating the best, then these stats need to be in the conversation with regard to Wieters.

    Orioles Team ERA from his first full season:

    2010: 4.59
    2011: 4.89
    2012: 3.90
    2013: 4.20
    2014: 3.43
    2015: 4.05
    2016: 4.22

    Obviously, the talent on the mound was a major issue, but I don’t think it was the only one.

    Caleb was the primary catcher in 2014. And his ERA was .74 runs better than Matt’s in 2015 while they handled the same staff.

    I know we can use stats all day to support one side of an argument or the other, but if we’re talking the BEST, I think those 2014-2015 numbers stick out like a sore thumb for Matty.

    I wish him the best and I am proud I got to root for him. He is a class act. I just can’t put him in the “best” conversation.

    Question: did he lose game-calling privileges last year? Consensus among my fan peoples was yes, as he was looking in the dugout before putting down the signs.

    • Bancells Moustache

      December 19, 2016 at 5:01 pm

      I’m pretty sure I see both he and Caleb look in the dugout for signs before every pitch, something that irks me tremendously. I hate the creeping influence of coaching micro-management, it’s turning baseball into football. Let the catcher call the pitches, and while we’re at it, dress the pitching coach in a polo shirt and leave him in the clubhouse every game. We don’t need extended discussions on the mound every other batter. Pitchers and Catchers at the Major League level have typically been pitching and catching over 20 years of their life. They can figure it out on their own.

      That being said, I don’t like using staff ERA to judge a backstop. Don’t matter how good you frame, how good a game you call, if the guy on the mound sucks there is only so much you can do. I mean, by that metric, that guy Charlie O Brian who Greg Maddux kept as his personal catcher is a first ballot Hall of Famer.

      • pjclark4

        December 21, 2016 at 9:53 am

        I understand what you are saying, but that isn’t the metric I’m using here. I should have been more clear, that’s my bad.

        My point isn’t to use his catching ERA to compare him to other catchers who are catching other talent levels, (for example, Charlie O’Brain’s ERA is lower therefore he was a better catcher than Matt).

        What I’m saying is there appears to be a clear difference in results while catching the SAME staff.
        Caleb seems able to get more out of them than Matt. cERA obviously does not tell the whole story, but when you are low 3’s with one catcher and low 4’s with another while catching the same staff, that at least opens my eyes.

        Does that make sense? I fear I’ve only made this argument worse. I just wanted to get out there that I don’t think he can be in the “best” conversation without acknowledging such stats, but until Caleb came along, there was no one to compare him to. Now we have actual numbers, and they don’t look too good, to me at least.

        Again, I know ERA includes a lot of factors, but when you can hold the defense, the staff, etc., constant and then compare catchers, it at least takes some of those factors out of play.

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