If someone asks you how you thought Matt Wieters performed in 2009, your answer will likely give the questioner a lot of insight into how you rated Wieters coming into the season. If you say something like, “Oh that stupid bum ruined my team. He was a total bust!”, then it is clear that you were part of the (HUGE) group that massively overrated the rookie backstop. If your answer is more along the lines of, “Well he wasn’t anything terribly special, but his September/October gave us a taste of why he was the consensus #1 prospect coming into the season.”
You didn’t have to search very far to find a favorable outlook for Wieters in 2009. Joe Mauer with power was the tagline as projections ranged as high as 30+ home runs while many fell in the mid-20s. Even Bill James initially put Wieters down for 24 with 85 RBIs and a .311 batting average. This piece over at FanGraphs.com openly encouraged reaching for him in drafts. And there were countless others using different ways to say the same thing: Wieters will be an instant hit in the major leagues.
I can honestly say I’m not using 20/15 hindsight to chastise those that were over the top in their predictions of Wieters. I was in the vocal minority that believed it was a foolish risk to jump headfirst into a marriage with Wieters with expectations of an All-Star caliber season. I expressed this belief on Twitter and on a pair of message boards I used to frequent. I also marveled at Wieters’ draft position being above Chris Iannetta’s in this review of a mock draft I was in. While I was decidedly wrong on Iannetta, it does show that I’m not blowing smoke re: Wieters.
Razzball was on target, too. Any outlet that suggested caution with Wieters wasn’t downing his merits as a top prospect in the grand scheme, just tempering expectations for his debut season. It is one thing to move from the minors to majors as a position player in the infield or outfield and it is quite another to do so behind the plate. Geovany Soto’s surprise 2008 season was fresh in the minds of those highest on Wieters with the rationale that if Soto can do what he did, the better, more heralded Wieters can TOP those numbers.
What you may not realize is that Wieters’ debut wasn’t abnormal of what we should expect from a rookie catcher. And while he wasn’t exemplary, he wasn’t a bust either. Over the past 20 years, there have been just seven catchers to log 300+ at-bats in their first season (note: the Play Index doesn’t differentiate between rookie qualified and 1st seasons, so while Mike Piazza and Geovany Soto [and others I’m sure] had excellent rookie seasons, they weren’t factored in because of the PI limitations). Of those seven, Kenji Johjima posted the best Adjusted OPS (OPS+) with a 103 and he was 95 years old (actually, 30). Wieters’ 95 OPS+ was 4th. Rarely is a catcher even given a legitimate chance out of the chute and in the instances where they are, there isn’t instance success at the dish. Furthering the point, in the last 30 years, there have been four Rookie of Year winners (Soto, Piazza, Sandy Alomar and Benito Santiago) that played catcher.
So that’s all the long way of saying that my relatively high opinion of Wieters hasn’t changed based on his first 354 at-bats. In 2010, he will take a big step toward the lofty projections heaped upon him last year. He still might not do the .300-30-100 dream season many foresee now and for years to come, but he should build off of the positives he showed throughout the season and specifically in final month of the season while learning from struggles he experienced upon being called up. His value will vary from league to league with some downing him after last year while others boost him as a perfect post-hype sleeper candidate. I don’t think he will have much sleeper value because he certainly hasn’t fallen off the radar. Sure, there is a contingent that over drafted him and might swear off of him, but the phrase is “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” not “like a fantasy baseball owner scorned” so that group should just get over their own stupid move and realize that Wieters is a much wiser pick this year than he was in 2009.
Wieters in 2009: .288-35-9-43-0
Wieters in 2010*: .292-86-25-82-0
(*–this assumes Wieters is moved up in the order batting 4th or 5th with some combination of Nick Markakis, Adam Jones and Nolan Reimold flanking or ahead of him. )