Last February, the Washington Nationals signed Matt Wieters to a two-year, $21 million deal with an opt-out after the 2017 season. The move looked like a no-brainer, as the Nats didn’t retain Wilson Ramos and top catching prospect Pedro Severino didn’t appear ready to take over an everyday role at the MLB level.
Two months into the season, Wieters looked like a lock to take that opt-out after the season. He boasted a .278/.343/.426 slash line with nine doubles and five homers through his first 45 games played while hitting at the bottom of the Nationals’ dangerous lineup.
In the 28 games since, however, Wieters is hitting just .184/.209/.291 with five doubles and two homers. With the offensively challenged Jose Lobaton handling backup duties, there hasn’t been much run production coming out of the catcher spot for the Nationals at all this season.
“I’d rather call a game that gives up less than two runs than trying to go out there and go four for four and drive in eight,” Wieters told The Washington Post. “You still have to have the confidence that you’re one click away from turning it around and being able to kind of turn the corner, just like always happens eventually. Hitting’s all confidence anyways.”
Yet Wieters’ struggles don’t just stop at the batter’s box. In today’s PITCHf/x era, pitch framing has become an important skill as statistics have been developed that evaluate catchers’ effectiveness at getting strike calls. Baseball Prospectus ranks Wieters 79th out of 83 catchers in pitch framing this season, while StatCorner identifies the Nats’ backstop as one of 12 catchers with a negative RAA (runs above average) in the double digits.
Before the season began, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo was asked about Wieters’ well-documented struggles with picking up strikes.
“I think pitch framing is one of the things we look at,” Rizzo told reporters, as quoted by CBS Sports. “I saw a pitch framer in Matt that improved in 2016. I think it’s one of the skills that can be improved. Pitch framing also has a lot to do with the pitching staff that you’re catching.”
Despite what Rizzo saw, Wieters has regressed further. With the Baltimore Orioles last season, Wieters accrued a -7.3 RAA in 124 games. In just 73 contests this year, Wieters already sits at -10.1.
In that same discussion with reporters, Rizzo argued that Wieters’ abilities to throw out runners and prevent passed balls compensated for any problems that his poor pitch framing created. So far this season, however, Wieters is only throwing out 23% of base stealers — a career low for a full season — and he has already allowed five passed balls — tied for his career high.
The Nationals don’t need Wieters to be a reliable hitter. His low batting average and occasional power can be swallowed at the bottom of their lineup. Behind the plate, however, they do need him to be a reliable backstop.
His pitch framing struggles have been a regular occurrence over the years, but if Wieters can start throwing out runners and blocking balls the way he used to then the $10.5 million salary he’s being paid would start looking a lot more justifiable.