Josh Hamilton capped his four-home run night by taking an 83-mph cookie from Darren O'Day over the center-field fence. Before joining the Baltimore Orioles this year, O'Day was Hamilton's teammate with Texas, and he thought he knew Hamilton's tendencies well enough to shake off the slider Matt Wieters wanted him to throw.
What O'Day realized 425 feet later – what every Baltimore Orioles pitcher learns eventually – is that no matter how well he thinks he knows what to throw, he doesn't know better than Wieters.
"Every time I shake him off, I give up a hit," O'Day said. "It's the truth. The home run I threw to Josh, I shook him off. The pitch to get a runner on base before Hamilton, shook him off. Game before, double to [Dustin] Pedroia, shook him off.
"I told him next time I shake him off, just give me the middle finger."
As much as Wieters' offensive explosion early this season has helped the Orioles' surprising ascent to the top of the American League East, his encyclopedic knowledge of hitters and their tendencies has cemented his place as perhaps the best catcher in baseball. All of the pre-debut hype that ensconced Wieters, who turns 26 on Monday, finally is being realized, and it's not just because he's a switch-hitting, home run-raking dynamo who is making the "Mauer with power" sobriquet look very real.
College teammates had a nickname for Wieters: God. It wasn't just that he could do anything; his effect on a game was omnipresent. And while the major leagues make idols into men daily, the growth of Wieters over his four major-league seasons has at the very least turned him into a baseball Apollo, for what he does is as much art as science.
Learning the tendencies of major-league hitters is as arduous and unforgiving a task as there is in the game – and one that's normally incumbent upon the pitcher. So to have a catcher who spends so much of his free time learning about those whom he crouches behind is a blessing for pitchers, and particularly one for an Orioles staff that has struggled to develop any semblance of the quality eminently necessary in the cutthroat East.
Wieters has helped coax a 3.41 ERA out of a patchwork Orioles staff. When everyone else on the team plane is passing around a bottle of Compass Box Asyla scotch to taste, Wieters defers and buries himself with his iPad to ready for the next series. He understands: The Orioles are going nowhere soon without Wieters and his faculty for knowing exactly what to throw and when to throw it.
"The No. 1 job for the catcher is to get his pitching staff ready," Wieters said. "That's how you're going to win the most games. You want the offensive numbers to be there, but at the same time, the catcher can win more games with his pitch calling and defense."
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What Wieters does goes relatively unnoticed because of the paucity of statistics that can quantify his game-calling and receiving talents. Scouts, players and personnel throughout baseball, however, agree that he owns a preternatural talent for excelling at the position's intricacies – from the signs he throws to the runners he throws out – that puts him in the echelon of the game's best.
"Everywhere I've been there have been great catchers, and when you compare, they're not as good as Wieters," Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy said. "He can throw anyone out, blocks everything, and I think he calls a better game than anyone I've been around. He always throws down the right fingers."
Hardy spent a year in Minnesota alongside Mauer, to whom Wieters draws the most comparisons because of their shared novelty as 6-foot-5 catchers. There have been just 10 in history, and only one, Sandy Alomar Jr., played more than 1,000 games at the position. The tall catcher is an anomaly – a long-limbed athlete at a position better suited for short limbs, a knee or shoulder injury waiting to happen.
And yet Wieters hasn't even considered playing anywhere else, not since his father, Richard, a former minor-league pitcher, stuck him behind the plate and taught him to switch hit at 5 years old. Wieters savors the involvement in every play, and the intellectual bonus – getting a chance to outsmart the hitter more than 100 times a game – whets his baseball appetite.
"You have to get in their mind and try to think like they do," Wieters said, "because if you can figure that out, you win most of the time."
Wieters sympathizes with hitters' plights. Throughout his first three seasons, Wieters often ended an at-bat with the frustration of having overthought his approach. As much as Richard repeated to him an axiom so many good hitters live by – "See the ball, hit the ball" – Wieters knew so much that it would get in his way.
When he arrived at spring training in Sarasota, Fla., this year, he resolved to adopt a new mindset: unplug the mind during at-bats, re-engage it behind the plate.
"I'm trying to turn my brain off at the plate," Wieters said. "As a catcher, information's great. You're not having to think about swing this way or that way. If you go up looking for a certain pitch as a hitter and don't get it, that can be frustrating."
Finally comfortable with his role, Wieters spent the spring honing his game instead of trying to produce. His left-handed prowess cratered last season. He hit 100 points lower from that side of the plate, got on base less than 30 percent of the time and slugged just .371. So he spent the preseason working on his lefty swing – trying to keep his hips parallel to his shoulders and hit as much with his lower body as he did his upper. While he remains a better average hitter from the right side – his natural one – all eight of Wieters' home runs have come left-handed, and his .852 OPS is best among AL catchers.
Keeping his balance has allowed Wieters to drive outside pitches from the left side, a distinct weakness last year. Seven of his homers have come on pitches middle-out. His command of the strike zone has steadily improved – he's swinging at a career-low 43.1 percent of pitches – such that he'll go to two strikes and still look for a pitch to hammer. Half his home runs have come on two-strike counts.
This is the Wieters college teammates deified, and the one the Orioles are beginning to likewise. He was one of the first megastars of the prospect era, where kids arrive in the big leagues with more hoopla than they'll ever get once there, and the Sports Illustrated cover after a poor rookie season did nothing to cool the expectations.
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A mediocre second season did that and allowed Wieters room to breathe. Now Orioles fans are clamoring for Wieters to have agent Scott Boras go against type and negotiate a contract extension. The Orioles are game, of course. Wieters?
"You'd definitely listen, but it's not something I want to occupy my time with," he said. "I feel like with how good this team can be, we're worried about winning, and when you win things tend to take care of themselves."
Whether Baltimore can keep winning nobody knows. Far more certain is what the Orioles staff, and especially Darren O'Day, understand better than anyone: God knows all.
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