There was a time when people thought Matt Wieters was going to be, well, precisely what he is so far in 2014: A hits machine from the right side facing left-handed pitchers, and a respectable hitter with power from the left facing righties. He was expected to bat something like, oh, .337/.372/.570 through the first month of the season. But that time was back in 2008, when Wieters hit a combined .355/.454/.600 in 530 PA across Single A Frederick and Double A Bowie, or in 2009 when he started the season with Triple A Norfolk and put up 163 PA of .305/.387/.504.
Then all those expectations vanished like so much dust in so much wind, because since coming to the majors in 2009 through the end of last season, Matt Wieters has done this: .255/.319/.420 (.739 OPS) in 2610 plate appearances, with an .831 OPS against lefties (as a right-handed batter) and a .712 OPS against righties (as a left-handed batter). That's not bad! It's a 99 OPS+, and it's over 30 points of OPS better than catchers as a group over that time period (.707 OPS from 2009-2013). It certainly establishes him as a valuable everyday catcher when considered in the context of his strong defensive skills and leadership ephemera. But it's not what that Sports Illustrated cover from 2009 promised when it called him the next Joe Mauer. (Of course, the meaning of the phrase "the next Joe Mauer" itself has changed substantially since the then-catcher's amazing 2009 season).
The biggest, most obvious weakness in Wieters' game at the plate -- as opposed to his game behind it, which is top-notch -- is that he can't hit for power or average against right-handed pitchers from the left side. Fans have wondered why Wieters doesn't just start batting right-handed against righties; the answer to that is that unless there's something critically, five-alarm-blaze wrong with a switch hitter's results from one side of the plate, hitting coaches aren't about to tell them to stop doing a thing they've been doing since before they started shaving. Being "merely" a league-average bat instead of an MVP-caliber hitter doesn't qualify as such an emergency.
But the fact remains that he's a .249 hitter from the left-hand side, and slugging under .400 for his career from the left, too. His current hot streak to start the season, of course, is predicated on the exact opposite of those four and half seasons of established fact: He's hitting for average against righties (.368) and for power (.559 SLG, 3 HR and 4 2B in 25 hits) while still walking a nifty amount (all 6 of his walks on the year are from the left side). It's his normally stronger right side that looks kind of lost and is only buoyed by a couple deep balls: .222/.211/.611 (.822 OPS), and no, that batting average and on base percentage aren't flipped, thanks to a sacrifice fly. His two HR and one 2B in 19 PA from the right side are why that slugging percentage is up where it is, and in all fairness, a 19 PA sample size is even less meaningful than the 75 PA sample size we're looking at from the other side of the plate.
In short, history -- and established performance -- tell us it's unreasonable to think that Matt Wieters is now suddenly someone other than who he's been so far in his career. And we should probably chide ourselves for being tempted to do so, because who Matt Wieters has been so far in his career is a perfectly acceptable backstop who can hold his own at the plate while excelling at everything he's been asked to do behind it. That's along with very solid durability and endurance, averaging 140 games played in his four full seasons in the majors -- just about the maximum amount of playing time any sane team would want their starting catcher to get.
But that's the thing, isn't it? A nice player is just that -- nice. People don't watch sports for nice. People don't watch sports to see a league-average pitcher throw a baseball. People watch sports to see Jose Fernandez making guys look like fools with his curveball and Cliff Lee owning the corners with his fastball. It's why we almost exclusively comp our favorite team's best prospects to Hall of Famers and why we think people are being pessimists when they tell us no, that 21 year old middle-infielder in AA isn't suddenly a future perennial All-Star just because he's had a hot month and change. Just like Matt Wieters isn't 2009 Joe Mauer now that he's done the same. But that's what his fans want to see when he steps to the plate, not "nice."
The more realistic hope for Wieters is that while this is of course an unsustainable hot streak, underneath the heat something's clicked into place and from now on, the average against righties will tick up 15 to 20 points into the .260ish range, and that he'll bring the slugging up with it. Considering Wieters sees about two and half times more righties than lefties at the plate, if he's able to drag his .712 career OPS against them up to even a sustainable .750 or so, he's suddenly a much more dangerous threat at the plate for a team that needs offensive contributors outside of the inconsistent Adam Jones, the injured Chris Davis and the rental Nelson Cruz.
It's not unprecedented for defensively proficient catchers with solid tools to suddenly experience an offensive renaissance years into their major league careers; take a look at Yadier Molina before 2011 (.688 OPS) and from 2011 to present (.844 OPS hitter). At age 28 this year, Wieters is actually the same age Molina was when he finally figured out how to make it all work in the batter's box as well as behind it.
But don't get too attached to that idea, or too bummed out if Wieters goes back to being the guy he's been since 2009. A nice player is still nice to have, and that doesn't change no matter how much we've told ourselves he should be something more.