The O's were scrambling for a catcher once Matt Wieters went down with Tommy John surgery in May. They stuck with Steve Clevenger for a while, but when the trade for Nick Hundley was completed, Clevenger, surprisingly, was the one optioned to the minors. Caleb Joseph, the homegrown rookie drafted in 2008, was kept on the roster as the backup catcher. Except that he never was the backup. Joseph began splitting time with Hundley behind the plate almost immediately upon Hundley's arrival. And he did not disappoint. Although the bat cooled off significantly in the last month of the season, his defense was exceptional and the bat more than adequate for a backup, where he will settle in nicely behind Wieters in 2015.
Let's talk about his bat first. There was no question that Joseph went through a prolonged slump in September when he reached base 7 times in 55 PA. His wOBA in September was a putrid .130. However, merely focusing on his struggles in September distracts from the fact that Joseph displayed a surprising amount of power over the season, hitting 9 homeruns in 275 PA. During a stretch in August, he hit a homerun in five consecutive games, one shy of the O's record held by Chris Davis and Reggie Jackson.
While his ability to earn walks and to avoid strikeouts certainly has room for improvement, his batting line also suffered because of an uncharacteristically low BABIP of .246. Even if he never learns how to take a walk or to cut down on strikeouts, his power prevents him from being a complete offensive black hole.
Despite some defensive concerns coming through the farm system, it's behind the plate where Joseph truly shined as a player. Joseph caught 40% of the base-stealers this season, third in the league among catchers who faced at least 30 SB attempts, behind only Yadier Molina and Robinson Chirinos. To illustrate the high mark reached by Joseph, the league average caught stealing rate is 27%, and even Wieters has never surpassed 40% in any season of his career. This seems likely to regress next season as he has only caught 34% of the base-stealers in his minor league career.
Not only is Joseph excellent in controlling the running game, he is also one of the better pitch framers in the game by publicly available framing metrics. By Baseball Prospectus's catcher framing numbers, Joseph added 94 strikes for the O's pitching staff in less than half a full season behind the plate. That amounts to estimated 14 runs added by Joseph by framing alone. This ranks 14th in the league. By StatCorner's numbers, Joseph added 10.7 runs by framing, ranking 12th in the league. No matter which site you look at, Joseph ranks high on the list. This represents a vast improvement over Wieters, who was estimated to cost the O's 10 runs by pitch framing last season and about average in 2012.
If you take the framing numbers at face value, you can almost make a case for Joseph to be a better player than Wieters despite his vastly inferior bat. I am not suggesting that, but the emergence of Joseph provides a nice insurance policy for the O's if Wieters were to leave in free agency after next season. If Joseph were to develop offensively, he might even become one of the best catchers in baseball.