Wieters Has Broad Back For Heavy Load
By Amber Theoharis
At the time it seemed a bit much. One Web site even referred to the Orioles' 2007 first-round draft pick as "Jesus in Cleats." This was before 23-year-old Matt Wieters' spikes had taken one step on a major league baseball field.
|Matt Wieters made his big league debut at Camden Yards May 29, 2009. (Mitch Stringer/PressBox)
It was May 29, 2009 -- the night of Wieters' big league debut. It was a rainy, gloomy Friday night at Camden Yards, but you would have thought it was Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. The atmosphere was electric. The Orioles' marketing department knew what it was doing. With all the hype surrounding baseball's top prospect, tickets were sure to sell.
It was understandable why the expectations and predictions around this one player became so bloated. Baltimore was starving for a savior, the next Cal Ripken Jr. After 11 losing seasons, this city needed something to hang its hat on. A power, switch-hitting catcher who had made it to the big leagues in less than one year was the perfect fit.
And so the unfounded -- some would say unfair -- legend of Matt Wieters was born.
As Wieters sat down for an interview in the dugout, it was apparent he was no savior, just a kid with a great scouting report whose biggest burden would be shedding the weight of expectation.
I remember thinking, what if Wieters isn't the freak of nature everyone makes him out to be? What if it takes him a couple of years to reach his potential? Everyone has a learning curve after all.
One thing was certain: At some point this young talent was going to have to break free of the hype. He would have to work within his own, more realistic goals. The question was: Could he do that?
One year after that day, the answer is yes. For all the unrealistic expectations put on Wieters, he deserves credit for consciously choosing not to buy into them and doing what he has to do to grow -- at his own pace. And the Orioles deserve credit for trying to protect him from the pitfalls that come with living under a public microscope.
One year later, fans have learned Wieters is human and he does have a learning curve. While he has shown dramatic improvement in areas such as managing a pitching staff and defense, there's still much work to be done in others like offensive production.
When Wieters first came to the big leagues there was a lot to digest. Being a catcher made the task grander. He was faced with learning hitters in the AL, learning a new pitching staff, knowing how to call a game and manage that staff, working on his footwork when it came to throwing runners out and, oh yeah -- hitting.
The first-rounder had to prioritize and decide what sectors to focus on. There's no way he could tackle everything at once.
Early on, the focus was on the pitching staff. It's the area manager Dave Trembley is most pleased with. Trembley told reporters Wieters rarely looks over to the dugout for a pitch call anymore, and his timing of visits to the mound seems to be right on target.
The next step was defense behind the plate. The Orioles did a good job of providing Wieters with mentors in this area. Last year it was bringing in veteran catchers Gregg Zaun and Chad Moeller. This year it has been former catcher and bench coach Jeff Datz.
Wieters' footwork has become visibly faster. His transfer and release of the ball on his throws from the plate seem to be sharper as well. As a result, Wieters ranks second in the AL with 11 runners caught stealing. Plus, he has no passed balls and only one error on the year. His .996 fielding percentage is second in the AL among catchers.
On the flip side, the one area Wieters needs the most work is offense. At the end of 2009, the Orioles were encouraged by the upswing in his offensive production when he batted .333 with 17 RBI and four home runs in the month of September. Plus, his homers came from both sides of the plate and he was showing the ability to hit to the opposite field.
In 2010, Wieters' progression hasn't been as rapid as expected. His .262 batting average is much lower than his .288 average in 2009. Perhaps the biggest concern is his lack of clutch hitting. Wieters is hitting just .225 with runners in scoring position. The majority of his hits have come with nobody on base.
To be fair, clutch hitting has been absent from the entire lineup. But while focusing on just Wieters, it's clear he is going to have to find a way to come up with the big hit.
As Wieters continues to develop, his biggest asset will be his mental makeup. The scouts got that one right. When it comes to not being affected by media attention or criticism based on unrealistic expectations, Wieters knows how to let the water roll off his back. To say he's even-keeled is an understatement.
It will be an interesting career to watch unfold. As it does, fans and critics will constantly compare those accomplishments to the expectations placed upon Wieters from day one. Unfortunately, he'll never shake the burden of being the second-highest draft pick in Orioles history. Until the day he retires, he'll be held to a higher standard.
Posted May 24, 2010