It’s an odd place we’re in right now, trying to see if the Nationals’ upgraded by acquiring a player who is replacing someone who has never played for them. But that’s where we are right now as, pending his physical, the Nats signed free agent Matt Wieters, who will take over for Derek Norris (0 games played) as the starting catcher.
Wieters is the more accomplished player, and at first glance seems like an obvious upgrade. But it’s not so clear when you actually look at their stats. Who will be better in 2017? Well, that depends where you look. Baseball Prospectus gives Norris a 0.6 WARP advantage, the three projection systems that Fangraphs show give Wieters a similar advantage. So let’s dig a little deeper.
Offensively, they’re actually pretty even overall. They have almost identical true averages for their career. Norris was way worse last season, but in his previous seasons, compared to Wieters prior full seasons, they are again pretty close (Norris was better in Oakland, although these were essentially half seasons). All this and they are projected to, conveniently, have almost the exact same true average, according to Baseball Prospectus.
But projections are just projections, and some of that is based not on last year but the last several. Norris was the worst hitter in baseball last year, his projections are lifted up because he was good in 2015 and better in ’13 and ’14.
When the Nats acquired Norris, I did a pretty in-depth writeup on his 2016 offensive woes. The long and short of it was, he could not hit a fastball to save his life last season. The Nats gambled that this was maybe just a fluke. If they were right, he is a probably better hitter than Wieters, almost certainly no worse. But even when they got him in November, I really had no idea whether they were right.
Wieters, on the other hand, is probably good for an OPS over .700, the over/under bet is probably closer to .715, and if he has a good year he might reach .750. He also is a switch hitter, and while Norris, a righty, is better against lefties, Wieters in better against righties. So even if Norris recovers somewhat, he’s never really hit righties well, and may be more of a platoon hitter. In other words, the Nats aren’t necessarily upgrading their offense here, they are just upgrading their offensive floor – considering this team’s injury history, that may not be a bad idea.
Backstop vs Receiver
Defensively, Wieters is considering a better backstop in the traditional sense – he’s got a better arm and has a better caught stealing rate. He’s also one of the best catchers in the league at preventing passed balls. But these are old stats, you know, the ones understood before 2010.
In terms of pitch framing, Norris has been better, at least over the last two seasons. Norris has been a good pitch framer for most of his career. Although he was, in 2014, worse at pitch framing than Wieters has been in any season.
Wieters, despite his reputation, hasn’t been bad forever. In 2009 and 2010, he was actually great at pitch framing, even though the only guy on the team that was a strikeout pitcher was Koji Uehara. Since then, though, he’s been bad. In 2013 he was slightly below average, same in ’14 and ’15 (when he barely played) and then he was below average in 2016. He’s not awful, though, he never has been. He was once about as good as Norris, now he is a bit below average. Maybe he can recover some of that ability…
Framing the Best
…because I do wonder if some of that will change with the Nats. Last season, Gio Gonzalez had a K/9 of 8.66 – this would have been the 2nd best K/9 rate among starting pitchers in Baltimore over Wieter’s entire career.
Now Wieters will be receiving pitches from strike throwers like Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, instead of the collection of Orioles starting pitchers he has been stuck with over the last few years. There is some evidence of status bias among umpires – essentially, that strikeout pitchers, once established as such, get more strike calls. If this is the case, it will be interesting to see how this clashes with Wieters’ poor pitch framing abilities.
Of course, maybe the reason the O’s starters have been so bad at striking guys out is that Wieters has been behind the plate. Then again, Scott Boras contends that the pitch framing is statistic flawed, and appears worse high velocity guys, like those on the Nats.
Keep an eye on those strikeout numbers from Scherzer and Strasburg, do they go down? Or do the framing numbers from Wieters suddenly look more impressive once he’s on the Nats?
For Better or for Avoiding the Worst
So, back to the original question – did the Nats get better by replacing Norris with Wieters? Well, it’s still not entirely clear they are better right now. In a few months time, we’ll know if Norris can indeed still hit fastballs. If he can, maybe Norris would’ve been the better choice. Until then, it seems like their are reducing their volatility, and gambling a bit less. Matt Wieters may not raise the Nats ceiling much, but he most likely lifts their floor.