To the casual observer, Matt Wieters and Shane Victorino don’t have a ton in common. One is a 27 year old, 6’5” catcher and the other is a 32 year old, 5’9” outfielder. They both play professional baseball in the American League East and both have had tremendous seasons defensively, but among the set of big leaguers, their differences overwhelm their similarities. One of their only key overlaps is that they both switch hit, or at least they did when the season started.
Due to an injury earlier in the summer, Victorino shifted all of his attention to the right side of the plate, perhaps for good, thanks to excellent results since making the change. Could this be a model for the Orioles’ catcher?
Wieters came to the big leagues with what qualified as immense prospect hype in 2009 and has yet to blossom into the player many thought he would become. This is not to say that Wieters has been bad, but he’s averaged just 3.3 WAR per 600 PA and a lot of that value is thanks to his superlative defense. His development as a hitter has been less promising than his performance as a receiver and game-caller.
Certainly a catcher who can repeatedly provide 2+ win seasons is a valuable commodity, but this is really more about comparing what Wieters is to what Wieters could be. No one is suggesting the Orioles cut bait, but it might be worth considering if he needs to make a change in order to maximize his offensive value.
Since the start of 2011, he’s been dead on league average with a 100 wRC+ overall. However, in that same time span he’s hit 157 wRC+ as a RHH and 79 wRC+ as a LHH. From the right side, he’s close to 60% better than league average and from the left side he’s about 20% worse than average and this gap has been pretty consistent year to year including a total of 1,247 PA from the left side and 465 from the right side.
Also worth noting is that Wieters puts the ball in play more often as a lefty – walking around 8% of the time and striking out about 15% of the time compared to about 10 and 22% from the right side since 2011. All told, Wieters is performing much worse from the left side – the side he hits from more often – and this appears to be a pretty consistent pattern over the last few seasons.
The question is if Wieters should drop the switch hitting act and follow Victorino into hitting exclusively from the right side. Considering league averages from the American League, the platoon advantage is somewhere between 35 and 65 points of OPS. There are all kinds of complicating factors to that calculation, but we’re only going to use it as a rough baseline.
Over the last three seasons, Wieters OPS split is more than 250 points. This year, it’s more than 200 points. Matt Wieters is gaining the platoon advantage in a technical sense when he hits left-handed against right-handed pitching, but he’s doing dramatically worse than we would expect him to perform if he simply stayed on one side of the plate.
If you take a look at AL OPS splits for this season, Wieters has one of the larger ones, but you wouldn’t expect that from a switch hitter. You expect lefties to have trouble with lefties, but you don’t expect a batter who is guaranteed to have the platoon advantage to be one of the bigger outliers.
Which brings us back to the fundamental question, should Wieters give up switch hitting? On the surface, the answer seems to be yes. On average, a generous platoon split range is fewer than 100 points of OPS and Wieters has more than double that. If he is truly more gifted from the right-side, the basic interpretation is that even if he had a large platoon split when hitting only from the right side it would be better than what he is currently doing hitting left-handed.
But there are other factors to consider. There could be an element of luck to this split, especially if you consider his BABIP as a RHH since 2011 is .357 and is .237 as a LHH. Over that large a sample, BABIP is usually telling us something meaningful, but even if it isn’t, his Well-Hit Average (WHAV) supports the idea that we’re not talking about luck. Since 2011, Wieters has made hard contact in 28.6% of his at bats while hitting right-handed and in just 22.8% of his at bats while hitting left-handed. This is beyond luck on balls in play, it’s a function of what he’s doing in the box.
Another factor to consider is that Wieters’ left-handed swing might be fixable. Perhaps there’s simply an issue from that side that needs to be corrected so that he can produce on par with his right side. Given that the problem has extended for three seasons, I’m skeptical, but it’s worth thinking about. And we also have to consider how it might affect his psychological approach to the sport if his manager tells him he’s not cutting it on one side of the plate. Without knowing him personally, it’s unclear how he would respond.
It seems like something Wieters and the Orioles should try, despite potential complications. Even with a higher strikeout rate from the right side, the performance has been so much better over the course of the last three seasons that it’s entirely possible he’ll be able to hit right handed pitching better from the right side than he can from the left.
Wieters is an extremely talented defensive catcher entering his prime offensive years and despite a ton of potential, we haven’t seen excellent numbers at the plate. When Wieters stands on the right side, he’s a superstar. When he stands on the left side, he’s below average even for a catcher. We get caught up in the value of platoon advantages, but those only work if the player is well suited for that arrangement. After more than 1,700 PA over the last three seasons, it’s starting to look like Wieters’ swing from the left side isn’t providing him that advantage.
As Wieters and the Orioles prepare to make another run at the postseason in 2014, they should see if making a Victorino style adjustment could turn the promising catcher into one of the league’s best offensive weapons.