Matt Wieters is off to one of the hottest starts of his career. The “switch-hitting Jesus” and “Mauer with Power” prospect has teased Orioles fans with excellence before. The myths of his talents grew in the minors as Orioles fans eagerly awaited his arrival to the major leagues. However, Wieters has never fully actualized that potential seen in him years ago. While a defensive stud behind the plate, at the plate is where Wieters has perplexed Orioles fans. Month long runs of sustained batting excellence are surrounded by months of ground balls and pop flies. The expectations that fans had for Wieters were unfair; however, to say he has disappointed in his ability with the bat to this point is not an overstatement.
Yet, Wieters is off to hot start in 2014, one of the first in his career. As of Tuesday, He is batting .366/.400/.634. He is hitting from both the left and right side of the plate like never before in his career. But after only 11 games in the books grand conclusions can be difficult to draw from this torrid pace. To find out what has caused this sudden surge in production it is best to look at the differences between this version of Wieters at the plate versus prior year iterations.
At first glance, the differences are clear. Looking at the batted ball data below, his line drive rate is currently 38.2% up from a career average of 18.2%. He is hitting the ball very hard. Also, his ground ball rate is a paltry 17.6% down from a career mark of 42.3%. Therefore, his high BAPIP of .387 is not necessarily luck driven. The hard contact is great for Wieters – as in his career, his line drives fall for hits 71% of time while he only converts 21% of his grounders into hits. His fly ball rate is similar to his career averages.
Delving deeper into the numbers can tell us why this sudden increase in line drives is occurring for Wieters. His walk rate thus far is 6.7% down from a career average of 8.6% and his strikeout rate is 17.8%, down from a career mark of 18.4%. Furthermore, his pitches per plate appearance is 3.64, almost a third of a pitch lower than his career rate of 3.92. These all may be construed as bad things – except of course the marginal drop in strikeout rate – from a plate discipline standpoint. However, Wieters’ aggression seems to be stemming from swinging at better pitches to hit.
Looking at the charts below, the rate at which Matt Wieters is swinging at pitches in the zone this year is a career high of 78.7% up from a 67.8% career rate. This has led to a career high in contact rate on pitches within the strike zone and a career low on pitches seen (i.e. not swung at) in the strike zone. His swing rate on pitches outside of the zone is marginally up .8%, but his contact on pitches out of the strike zone is up just over 3%. These numbers show that Wieters has been much more aggressive this year at the plate. He is selecting pitches he can drive, making solid contact with them, and driving them rather than letting pitches go by he can drive.
However, the story does not stop with the numbers. Wieters has also improved his technique at the plate. Being a switch hitter makes being an accomplished hitter difficult. Two swings to worry about can cause much consternation and confusion. Over his career, Wieters has hit .246 from the left side and .281 from the right side in his career. His struggles from the left side have caused his career stats to drag as over 71% of his plate appearances come from that side.
Looking at Wieters’ swing from the left side, it has changed some. Notice in the pictures below the differences in the load and at the point of contact. The first and third pictures below are from this year against Toronto and Esmil Rogers from this past Sunday; the second and fourth pictures below are from a game last year against the Angels and Garrett Richards. Both pitches are sliders and both are in the middle of the plate. The one against Toronto on Sunday was hit for a homerun, the at bat against Garrett Richards ended in a groundout to second base. Notice in Wieters’ load from 2014; the slightly higher leg kick, lower hands, and more crouched stance in 2014. This gives Wieters a better ability to get the bat to the ball and drive the ball. At the point of contact, his hands are lower as well. Also notice how his back leg is more firmly into the ground at the point of contact rather than on the tip of his toe preventing getting out in front and adding more power to the swing. These alterations make it easier for him to make contact and to make stronger contact.
These adjustments in his swing from the left side combined with his more aggressive approach at the plate overall have driven Matt Wieters’ early 2014 success. If he continues on this path his most offensively productive season may soon follow. The Orioles and their fans should be encouraged by the start and by the adjustments Wieters has made to his plate discipline and left-handed swing. If these trends persist, it will mean great things for both Wieters and the Orioles this season.