As the number-five overall pick in the 2007 Major League Baseball draft, Matt Wieters was burdened with extraordinary expectations from the moment he joined the Baltimore Orioles organization. According to Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus (and later of the Houston Astros), Wieters was baseball’s best prospect entering 2009, ahead of future MLB aces David Price and Madison Bumgarner. In 2011, the season during which Wieters turned 25 years old, he was MLB’s third most valuable catcher by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, behind Mike Napoli and Alex Avila and one spot ahead of Yadier Molina.

2011 was the peak of his career. Wieters is now largely regarded as a disappointment, if not an outright bust, but this is more the result of irrationally high expectations than anything else–by fWAR, Wieters has been one of the ten best catchers of the 2010s. By Defensive Runs Above Average, Wieters is the second-best defensive catcher of the decade.

On February 26, Wieters joined the organization of the decade’s best defensive catcher when he signed a minor-league contract with the St. Louis Cardinals. Wieters, who followed his time with the Orioles by signing a two-year, $21 million contract with the Washington Nationals, was an even bigger disappointment in D.C. than he had been in Baltimore. While Wieters rebounded somewhat in 2018, his downright awful 2017 saw the catcher posting a wRC+ of 62. For reference, in Allen Craig’s career-destroying 2014 season, Craig had an 81 wRC+ and a 68 wRC+ overall.

This is not a glamorous signing, hence why Wieters was only able to garner a minor-league contract. This term is a bit of a misnomer–as it stands, Yadier Molina is the only catcher on the 40-man roster, as last year’s backup catcher, Francisco Pena, also signed a minor-league contract. Andrew Knizner, the organization’s new Catcher Of The Future, has only played 17 games in AAA and will almost certainly not begin the 2019 season at a level higher than that. For all intents and purposes, Wieters and Pena are now engaged in a position battle for the role of backup catcher to Yadier Molina.

It is worth reiterating several times that the Matt Wieters of 2019 is not the Matt Wieters of a decade ago, a player who was not only starter-quality but looked like a franchise player. He is very clearly not as good of a catcher as Yadier Molina, and while he perhaps should have commanded a Major League contract, he was never going to be a major player in free agency. In his minor bounce-back 2018, Wieters was still a below-average hitter (though his 89 wRC+ was better than the 84 wRC+ among MLB catchers) and in 271 plate appearances, he was worth 0.9 fWAR (also, 0.6 Baseball Reference WAR and 0.9 Baseball Prospectus WARP).

So let’s prorate Wieters’s WAR/WARP totals to 503 plate appearances, the number accumulated in 2018 by Yadier Molina. First, so you have a point of reference, here are Molina’s numbers per 503 plate appearances.

Molina: 1.8 bWAR, 2.2 fWAR, 3.1 WARP

And now Wieters.

Wieters: 1.1 bWAR, 1.7 fWAR, 1.7 WARP

Well there you have it. Not that I ever had to convince a readership which consists almost entirely of St. Louis Cardinals fans that Yadier Molina was better than anybody, much less Matt Wieters, but he is. So now that the zero of you that had to be convinced of this have been hopefully converted, let’s look at the 2018 per-503 PA value totals for Francico Pena.

Pena: -5.3 bWAR, -2.5 fWAR, -2.8 WARP

2018 Matt Wieters may have represented mediocrity, or at best averageness, 2018 Francisco Pena represented awfulness. In 142 plate appearances, Francisco Pena had a wRC+ of 32. Of the 405 MLB players with at least 140 plate appearances in 2018, the only one worse at the plate was former Cardinal/current Miami Marlins outfielder Magneuris Sierra. Pena was better defensively, basically by necessity, but he was still a below-average defensive catcher per Baseball Prospectus, whose catcher defensive metrics utilize a wider range of data than those of FanGraphs or Baseball Reference.

But, as I noted previously, 2018 was a bounceback season for Matt Wieters after a nightmare 2017 season. So let’s look at his WAR/WARP rates per 503 plate appearances, and in case you don’t feel like scrolling back up, I’ve listed Francisco Pena’s 2018 rates below them.

Wieters: -0.6 bWAR, -0.3 fWAR, -0.4 WARP

Pena: -5.3 bWAR, -2.5 fWAR, -2.8 WARP

2017 Matt Wieters was bad; 2018 Francisco Pena was demonstrably worse. But Wieters also had nearly as many plate appearances in his season as Yadier Molina had last season. Pena only had 142 plate appearances and it is possible he had an especially poor performance in too small of a sample size from which to glean too confident of conclusions. So rather than looking at Pena’s 142 plate appearances from 2018, let’s look at his career numbers. It’s still not a big sample–just 202 plate appearances–but it’s all I have to work with. So here’s a side-by-side of the worst season of Matt Wieters’s career compared to Francisco Pena’s entire career.

Wieters: -0.6 bWAR, -0.3 fWAR, -0.4 WARP

Pena: -1.7 bWAR, -1.0 fWAR, -1.5 WARP

Matt Wieters and Francisco Pena were teammates on the 2016 Baltimore Orioles. Wieters made 464 plate appearances and Pena made 43. There’s a good reason why. Saying Matt Wieters is a better baseball player than Francisco Pena is like saying Matt Carpenter is a better baseball player than Drew Robinson–it is a statement so obvious that it feels patronizing to even have to utter it out loud. 2019 projections reflect this as well. If either Wieters or Pena gets to 189 plate appearances, the total accumulated by non-Yadier Molina Cardinals catchers in 2018, ZiPS projects that Wieters would be worth 0.4 WAR and Pena would be worth 0.1 WAR. This may seem immaterial but consider first that Yadier Molina turns 37 this year and always runs the risk of injury, and consider second that this 0.3 WAR gap would make Wieters worth $2.7 million more on the open market than Pena. And in actual dollars, the two cost the same.

It has long been said that Yadier Molina backups are hard to find because they play so little that they can’t impress potential suitors, but Matt Wieters and Francisco Pena signed knowing the risks they were running. And unlike Andrew Knizner, the 32 year-old Wieters and the 29 year-old Pena don’t have much room for growth by playing in the minors. They want to play in the big leagues and earn big-league paychecks.

And yet Wieters is not assured this position despite being far more qualified to play Major League Baseball than Francisco Pena, whose career wRC+ is nine points lower than that of Pete Kozma. According to Cardinals general manager Michael Girsch, Pena has “a ton of goodwill in (the) clubhouse”, and despite the presence of top catching prospect Carson Kelly on the MLB roster, the Cardinals leaned heavily on Pena last season when Yadier Molina went to the Disabled List. Tony Cruz, a similarly ineffective backup catcher who at least had the attached rationalization of being younger, spent four full seasons as Yadier Molina’s backup. That the Cardinals don’t devote a ton of energy to the backup catcher position isn’t surprising, but their total avoidance of the position when improving it considerably can be done almost by accident is indefensible.

Matt Wieters should be the backup catcher for the 2019 St. Louis Cardinals. He provides more value in a part-time role, and particularly if something were to happen to affect Yadier Molina’s health, having a capable second option could make all the difference in what should be a tightly-packed NL Central.

 

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