May 2009

Wieters Mania

wieters.jpgIn case you missed it, the biggest thing since Cal Ripken swept through Baltimore this weekend.

Matt Wieters — the most highly anticipated Orioles prospect in two decades — hardly snuck in through the back door Friday. He got a standing ovation before stepping to the plate for his first big league at-bat.

One network later called it, “the dawn of the Matt Wieters era.”

One commentator even mentioned his name in the same sentence as Johnny Bench.

Now, before we begin to wrap our minds around that comparison, a little background:

Anyone following baseball closely over the past several months knew this moment would come. What Wieters brings to the table is practically unrivaled: six-foot-five, switch-hitter, catcher, starred at Georgia Tech, selected fifth overall in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, bulleted through the Orioles farm system in less than two years time and a career .343 average and a .576 slugging percentage in the Minors. Not only is he talented, he also possesses something that separates him from the pack of freakishly gifted prospects: outstanding plate discipline.  Superstar is practically written all over this guy’s forehead.

But does his name really belong in the same sentence as Bench? Maybe we should roll out the carpet to Cooperstown now instead of waiting another however many years to induct Wieters into the Hall of Fame.

This whole situation raises an even larger question: When did we all start giving big-time rookies star treatment? Did it start with Lebron? A-Rod?

Regardless, it’s hard to ignore how many bright young stars have fallen victim to hype. What happened to Jeff Francoeur since gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2005? Years after Alex Gordon and Jeremy Hermida were favored to win Rookie of the Year honors, and we’re still waiting for them to arrive.

The good news for Wieters is that history is working in his favor.  Only so many hitters have wrecked havoc on Minor League pitching over the last quarter-century quite like the South Carolina native. He also joins an up-and-coming Orioles lineup that is just hitting its stride.

So it really just comes down to a test of character. Will Wieters fold under the spotlight, seize the moment or stumble for a while before getting his act together?

Having watched him play a little bit, I will say that he seemed fairly calm under fire. He doubled and tripled on Saturday, and despite hitless performances on Friday and Sunday, the fact that he didn’t start swinging at everything in arm’s length shows signs of maturity.

Cynicism aside, in the face of some ridiculous expectations, Wieters can and I think, ultimately, will blossom into one of baseball’s top catchers, batting well above of.300 and rake 20-30 homers annually.

Just don’t go haywire if it takes longer than a week or two before he gets there.

— Alex Cushing, MLB.com

Mauer power here to stay?

mauer.jpgWe all knew Joe Mauer could hit, but hit for power?

That was supposed to be the one crack in his armor.

Until this year.

Mauer slugged his 11th homer on Memorial Day, his third in as many days, putting him within two of his career high set back in 2006. The difference, of course, is that back then, Mauer had 512 at-bats before getting there. This time, it’s taken only 81 at-bats to reach 11. At this pace, he’ll finish the season with 66 bombs (assuming he plays in every remaining every Twins game), even after sitting out the entire month of April nursing a back injury. And who says back problems sap a hitter’s power? I remember hearing a similar prediction about Russell Branyan’s back woes, right before he proceeded to do his best Roy Hobbs impersonation. But that’s another story for another day.

With the way things are going now, people have to be wondering: what has gotten into Mauer? Is this some momentary surge or can we expect to see him competing against teammate and reigning Home Run Derby champ, Justin Morneau? Neither outcome would be shocking.

One thing’s for sure, though: Mauer is no Barry Bonds: The chances of him tallying 66 homers in one season are about as likely as Jamie Moyer striking out 300 batters. In fact, I have a hard time buying 30 homers.

One glance at his hit chart tells an interesting story:

The vast majority of Mauer’s homers have been opposite-field shots.

Don’t get me wrong — going the other way never hurt anyone. The bottom line is this, though: Mauer has always shown the ability to spray the ball all over the diamond, meaning his recent outburst is merely a more prolific version of what he’s done in past years. That’s not to say it’s impossible for a player to improve over time, but to witness such a dramatic shift without any real change to his skill set or approach makes it difficult to believe Mauer’s surge will last. If, for example, Mauer was all of a sudden pulling the ball to right field with great frequency, it would be far easier to defend his long-ball binge as legitimate. Unfortunately, no visible change exists where the 26-year-old’s peripherals or trends are concerned, so we’re left without much choice but to believe that he’s simply very, very hot right now — not a permanently changed hitter.
  

Another habit Mauer can’t seem to shake is pounding the ball into the dirt. Granted, this month has been better than years past. He is getting more loft on his swing, putting the ball in the air 36.6 percent of the time, more than eight percentage points higher than last season’s mark of 28.3 percent. Keeping it up will almost certainly get him to 20-25 homer territory. Still, to truly take the next step, to really establish himself as one of the game’s top hitters — and not just one of the game’s top-hitting catchers — he’ll probably need to stop waking up so many worms with his 46.5 percent ground-ball rate.

Winning another batting crown? Sure.

Banging 30-plus dingers after having never hit more than 13? Let’s not get carried away.

— Alex Cushing, MLB.com

Fish out of water?

nolasco.jpg
While a revitalized Michael Cuddyer was busy hitting for the cycle Friday, things went from bad to worse for one of last year’s biggest surprise stories.

Ricky Nolasco — the Marlins Opening Day starter — found himself assigned to Triple-A New Orleans after getting touched for eight earned runs in just two innings against the Rays.

It’s easy to see why the Marlins sent him packing. Friday was the last straw, his second straight eight-run meltdown, leaving him with an indefensible 9.07 ERA and 2-5 record.

Where did it all go wrong? What happened to the guy who returned last spring from a 10-month injury hiatus and went on to establish himself as one of the game’s top starters, notching 98 strikeouts, just 12 walks and a 3.29 ERA down the stretch?

How did Nolasco become the National League’s punching bag?

“What I’m seeing is it looks like he’s lost a little bit of belief in himself,” Marlins catcher John Baker said. “It looks like he’s pitching away from contact.”

Pitching coach Mark Wiley: “I think he was putting pressure on himself to do well. He was over-throwing pitches, and kind of losing a little bit of his mechanics.”

Manager Fredi Gonzalez: “We’ve got to get his confidence back.”

The notion that Nolasco’s problems are more mental than physical seems to be supported by the numbers.

For all the disappointment he’s caused for owners who believed they were drafting a staff ace, keep in mind that Nolasco’s basic skills remain intact: his mid-90s fastball, his 7.63 K/9 rate and his 37/13 K/BB ratio all paint a far different picture than the image of someone getting chased out of Florida.

That doesn’t mean Nolasco is without flaws. He threw way too many pitches (18.60 P/IP) and surrendered one too many homers (8 in 42 2/3 IP).

It just means that, barring some injury being concealed from everyone, there isn’t anything major wrong with him. Nothing that a confidence boost and a few mechanical adjustments can’t cure.

So before you go kicking him to the curb out of frustration, ask yourself this:

How would you feel if after giving up on Nolasco, he rejoined the Marlins rotation in no time and completely turned things around on someone else’s team?

– Alex Cushing, MLB.com