After playing six minor league seasons and even considering retirement, Caleb Joseph finally got his shot with the O's in 2014. With Matt Wieters out for the season Joseph became an important part of the best Orioles team in decades, starting the majority of games down the stretch and into the postseason. But after an offensive explosion in August during which he homered in five straight games, he became a black hole in the lineup by the end of the season. From September through the end of the playoffs Joseph went 6 for 59, and Nick Hundley was starting to pick up more starts in response to his counterpart's struggles.
With that cold streak still fresh in our minds, not many Oriole fans were thrilled at the prospect of Joseph as the primary catcher with Wieters still in recovery. We knew he'd be a solid defender, but there were serious questions about his bat at the major league level. A year later, those questioned have mostly been answered. There's little doubt now that Joseph is capable of being an MLB catcher, and it's highly likely that he'll be the Opening Day starter for Baltimore in 2016.
Thanks to Wieters' longer-than-expected recovery from Tommy John surgery, we got a nice long look at Joseph as an every day catcher. From Opening Day until Wieters' return on June 5th, 42 out of 54 starts went to Joseph. Once Wieters was finally back, the team was extremely cautious with his workload - Joseph started exactly half of the remaining 108 games for a total of 96 starts on the season (all but three of which were at catcher). He responded to this bigger role by improving his offensive game in nearly every way.
He cut down on his strikeouts, from 25.1% in 2014 to 20.3% in 2015. He walked more, from 6.2% up to 7.6%. He hit for slightly more power, improving his ISO from .146 to .159. As result, his batted line jumped from .207/.264/.354 in 2014 to .234/.299/.394 this year, an 75-point improvement in OPS.
That batting line isn't going to get Joseph voted into any All-Star Games. It's good for a 86 wRC+, 14% worse than a league average hitter. But remember, Joseph is a catcher, and a very good defensive catcher to boot. That 86 wRC+ ranks him 15th out of the 28 catchers who had at least 300 plate appearances, right around an average starting catcher. Combining that with his defensive contributions, Fangraphs had him as a 1.4 win player and Baseball-Reference liked him even more, crediting him with 2.2 WAR.
This season, Caleb made $515,000. Considering the cost of a win on the free agent market these days is about $7 million, getting a 1.5-2 win catcher for $515k is good value to say the least. Cheap, decent players like Joseph are something any smaller-market team needs a few of to fill out their roster if they want to contend, and they're something the Orioles could've used a little more of this year. Considering the amount of money and innings that went to sub-replacement level performance from guys like Bud Norris, Everth Cabrera, Delmon Young, and so on, it would've been nice to have a few more Caleb Joseph-caliber players to plug into those spots instead.
Assuming Matt Wieters plays elsewhere in 2016, we're most likely going to see a combination of Joseph and Steve Clevenger behind the plate. That's perfectly fine with me - it allows the team to spend money elsewhere and it's a nice platoon situation with two cheap and very different players. Giving the left-handed Clevenger a good chunk of the starts against right-handed pitching could help Joseph, since as a right-handed batter he tends to hit southpaws a bit better.
What can we expect from Joseph in 2016? It's hard to say. The optimistic scenario is that he takes yet another step forward with his offense - between another year of experience and having more of his at bats come against lefties, he hits close to league average and becomes one of the more solid all-around catchers in the league. The pessimistic scenario is that Joseph's offense regresses back to what it was in 2014 - he hits around the Mendoza line with some pop, still plays good defense, and ends up as about a 0.5 WAR player. Even if that happens, it still could be worse for Buck Showalter and the Orioles. A half-decent catcher can be tough to find, and a good catcher is even tougher. Joseph has played pretty well in Wieters' shadow - let's hope he can keep improving under the spotlight.