Orioles: Dissecting The Catching Situation
I never bought into the old saying of “bad baseball is better than no baseball.” I certainly didn’t believe that last summer while watching the Baltimore Orioles dive head first into a second-straight 100 loss season. Now, with very little hope of having the opportunity to watch any sort of baseball this year, I truly understand the meaning of that quote.
If the current Covid-19 global pandemic didn’t bring the sports world to a screeching halt and put the 2020 Major League Baseball season on hold, the Orioles were very likely headed for a third-straight season of triple digit losses. However, there was no shortage of storylines heading into the 2020 season.
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One of those storylines involved the catching position. Yes, we all know that Adley Rutschman is waiting in the wings and will (fingers crossed) take over behind the plate in the near future. However, major league teams need more than one man behind the plate and the 2020 season could have gone a long way in helping to answer a few questions about who that second backstop may be.
The main options are the two guys who split time behind the plate in 2019, Pedro Severino and Chance Sisco. One a waiver claim who found his stroke last season and proved to be one of the more pleasant surprises in Baltimore, the other option being a former second round draft pick and Top 100 prospect who the Orioles have dedicated seven years to, only to be left with more questions than answers at this point.
Will either of these two young backstops step up when baseball resumes and develop a more clearly defined niche? If we break down the two, there are a lot of positives on both sides, along with a few big red flags we can’t overlook.
Firstly, the 26-year-old Severino. Severino joined the Orioles with just 105 games worth of major league experience under his belt, a career average under .200, and was coming off a 70-game campaign with the Nationals in which he posted a wRC+ of 34 (with 100 being league average). Known for his defensive abilities, Severino wasn’t expected to join the lineup and hit, but that’s what he did.
In his first year with the Orioles, Severino played in 94 games, slashing .249/.321/.420 with 13 home runs, a wRC+ of 94, and was worth 0.5 fWAR. Among the 30 big league catchers with at least 300 plate appearances last season, he ranked between 14-16 in terms of average, OBP, and wRC+. He was also one of the more patient catchers at the plate, owning the sixth-lowest percentage of swings on pitches out of the zone (27%) and ranking right in the middle of the pack in walk rate (8.5%) and strikeout rate (21.4%).
When trying to find how Severino was able to experience so much more success in 2019 compared to his previous campaigns, the chart below does a good job of explaining one reason why. Severino simply started swinging at more pitches he can hit. On the left, you see his swing percentage from 2019, with swing rates from 2018 on the right. He greatly laid off stuff up in the zone and waited for pitchers to throw it where he wanted. This also led to a sharp rise in his barrel rate, jumping from 2.1% to 8.5% (league average was 6.7% last season).
(images courtesy of Baseball Savant)
Despite often being dubbed as a “defense-first” catcher, the advanced metrics didn’t like Severino very much. He ranked near the bottom of the league in terms of his framing numbers (per Baseball Prospectus) and his Defensive rating fell from 4.8 in 2018 to -2.0 last season (per Fangraphs). While he did rank in the upper half of the league in terms of arm strength and pop time (per Baseball Savant), Severino saw his caught stealing percentage drop from well above league average at 34% to 24%. Of course, those numbers are going to take a hit when you go from catching Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg to John Means, Dylan Bundy, and a long list of pitchers who are now trying to keep a job overseas, so I’m not taking too much stock in last year’s defensive numbers.
At the end of the day, Severino certainly made his case to get the majority of the playing time behind the plate in 2020 and if he can continue to replicate his offensive output of 2019, Severino will have a long career as a backup catcher in the big leagues, maybe even with the Baltimore Orioles. He’s just now entering his prime years for a catcher and if he can show that he can be consistent at the plate, Severino may prove he is an asset that provides value.
The Orioles also have another option in Chance Sisco. Unfortunately, the 25-year-old Sisco has yet to make his mark at the big league level and there are still numerous questions as to whether or not he has a future in the big leagues. However, Sisco’s ceiling remains much higher than Severino’s and he’s still young for a catcher, leading many to not hop off the Sisco bandwagon just yet.
While we may not have reached the point of writing off Sisco’s ability to be a future contributor for this organization, he has very little to prove in the minor leagues, slashing .268/.353/.427 with 60 extra-base hits in 184 Triple-A games over parts of the last four seasons. He also has nothing to prove behind the plate. Sisco is one of the league’s worst defensive catchers and that isn’t going to change, but if he brings the type of offense he’s shown in the minor leagues up to the big leagues, the defensive issues can be overlooked, and maybe even slightly improved upon with a legitimate catcher ahead of him on the depth chart to learn from and a starting rotation worthy of being called a big league rotation.
Essentially, it’s time for Sisco to show us everything in his toolbag and carve out a role. There was a glimmer of hope that we were witnessing this after his callup to the majors least season. Overall, Sisco owns a .203/.319/.357 slash with a 33% strikeout rate and 85 wRC+ in 132 games with the Orioles. He hit .267 with a .389 OBP, four home runs, and a wRC+ of 165 in his first 14 games of the 2019 season (called up in June), giving us a reason for optimism and hope for the former top prospect. Those numbers quickly bottomed out, but Sisco showed big improvements.
In just 14 more plate appearances compared to his 2018 stint, Sisco upped his on-base percentage by 48 points (.333), his ISO by 99 points (.186), and increased his wRC+ to 96, 38 points higher than his less than impressive 2018 season. He also traded in a notable chunk of his ground balls for line drives and saw his hard-hit rate leap to nearly 40%. With luck not on his side, Sisco posted a .276 BABIP despite positive gains across the board when diving into his plate discipline numbers and offensive results.
After spending the offseason with the renowned hitting consultant Craig Wallenbrock, who has worked with many of the game’s top hitters, Sisco claims he’s implemented a few mechanical adjustments aimed at driving the ball more and cutting down on his extreme swing and miss rate, and that mentally he is in a good place. It’s unfortunate that we may not have the opportunity to see if his offseason work, combined with a little more luck, pays off and unlocks the promise Orioles fans have been waiting for when it comes to a player once touted as one of the top catching prospects in all of baseball.
Are the Orioles thinking about a position change with Sisco? They clearly aren’t afraid to move players around the diamond and if Sisco’s bat delivers, Baltimore will have to find a consistent home for it in the starting lineup. That could be a viable option, especially if we see any catching prospects not named Adley Rutschman rise above the rest and work their way to the major leagues.
As discussed in my All-Sleeper Orioles prospect team (a list of Orioles prospects outside our Top 30 list who demand your attention), 2019 draft pick Maverick Handley is a fascinating prospect with major league-quality defensive skills and an enormous baseball IQ (he is a Stanford guy). He shared Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors last year with Rutschman. That’s how good he is behind the plate.
Brett Cumberland (acquired in the Kevin Gausman trade with Atlanta in 2018) and 2019 draft pick Jordan Cannon are also interesting names to watch behind the plate. Cumberland certainly has the ability to get on base and potential to impress at the plate, but his defensive abilities are severely lacking, while Cannon (great last name for a catcher) was drafted out of Sam Houston State with an eye on his defense.
The 2019 version of Pedro Severino was good. His numbers stack up well against the upper-half of catchers across the league and we watched him become a much more mature hitter at the plate in his first season with the Orioles. But what we saw last year is likely the best version of Pedro Severino a team is going to get. As a backup option, he’s a great choice and will find somewhere to play should the Orioles decide to move on from him.
Sisco showed improvements and has the higher ceiling, but we have already been waiting a long time for him to prove himself. There were hints of a turnaround in 2019 and his offseason work showed dedication to improving and learning about his game, but will it be enough? If it is, will Sisco’s future be behind the plate? Is he another case study in how a simple change of scenery is all the medicine a player needs?
Hopefully, we get baseball in 2020 so some of these questions are answered and the future becomes more clear. Rutschman isn’t coming up in 2020 and it’s even harder to imagine he comes up in 2021 if we see a shortened or canceled 2020 season, giving us another year to sort out the Severino/Sisco battle.
A former high school teacher and coach in the mountains of Virginia, Nick Stevens has been writing about the Baltimore Orioles and their minor league system for five years. When he isn’t at a minor league stadium, he’s enjoying a Wizards game or supporting his alma mater, James Madison University.
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