WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) Washington Nationals catcher Matt Wieters entered camp hoping a weight reduced to 225 pounds will help rectify last year’s .225 batting average.
Healthy for the entire offseason, Wieters dropped 15 pounds between the end of the 2017 season and the start of spring training.
He’s swinging more freely this spring, and it’s showing. After hitting a career low at the plate, the 32-year-old switch-hitter is off to a .357 (5 for 14) start to Grapefruit League play that includes a home run and five RBIs.
Article continues below ...
”I’m able to feel a lot of the things we’ve been working on and take them into the game,” Wieters said. ”It’s a good feeling to be able to carry over what you put some time and effort into into some live at-bats.”
After spending the first eight years of his career with Baltimore, Wieters signed a two-year contract worth $21 million with Washington. A severe cut to his wrist suffered that offseason hampered his work prior to last spring and contributed to Wieters’ slow start.
He never truly rebounded, hitting only 10 homers and driving in 52 for the NL East champions. First-year Washington manager Dave Martinez sees a different Wieters than the one he coached against last season with the Chicago Cubs, who beat the Nats in the Division Series.
”It will be very exciting if he can come back and do what we know he’s capable of doing,” Martinez said. ”With the injuries he had, that had a lot to do with the way he was swinging. This year, he’s got no injuries and he’s hit the ball really good this spring. I’m looking forward to keeping him healthy and watching him play.”
Wieters isn’t relying solely on health and weight loss to improve a career-worst season. This spring he’s been working with new hitting coach Kevin Long and assistant coach Joe Dillon on pitch recognition drills.
”Right now, it’s just reaction time and just kind of training the brain,” Wieters said.
In the batting cage, Long and Dillon send baseballs with different markings on them through the pitching machine, asking Wieters to identify the markings before the balls reach the plate.
They’ll also move the pitching machine closer to the plate than the normal 60 feet, 6 inches from rubber to home. The shortened distance makes the ball seem as though it’s reaching the plate at a higher velocity than it really is, requiring a quicker reaction time from the batter.
”You see 140 miles per hour in the cage, it’s obviously going to make it seem a little slower in the game,” Wieters said.
Wieters enjoys this kind of tinkering.
”I always say the cage is the laboratory and the field is where you take it out there and just try it out,” Wieters said.
His rejuvenation this spring essentially settled the Nationals’ starting catching question. Washington signed former Cubs catcher Miguel Montero prior to the start of spring training. He’s now in a battle with 24-year-old top prospect Pedro Severino for the backup role.
This spring, the 34-year-old Montero is hitting .118 with one homer, while Severino is at .250 – but this competition likely won’t be decided by spring offensive prowess.
”For me, that backup catcher has got to be able to step in one day and call a good game and receive well,” Martinez said. ”It’s not so much about the hitting portion. They need to be able to catch. If we’ve got to make a double switch or something, they’ve got to come in the game and control the game.”