Let’s get this out of the way: I really like Caleb Joseph. I like his story, and how he finally earned a major league job at age 28 after considering retirement. He seems to be a good guy and a great teammate. He sprayed me and some friends with beer through the backstop after the Orioles clinched the A.L. East in 2014.
He’s also been a pretty good catcher for most of his short MLB career. He’s great defensively, and in 2014 and 2015 he did a respectable job at the plate as well. He was worth 1.4 WAR last year in about a half season’s worth of games, which put him firmly into the “best backup catcher in baseball” conversation.
This all goes to show that the point of this article is not to say that Caleb Joseph is bad, or that the O’s need a new backup catcher. Instead, I’m simply pointing out a statistically oddity: Caleb Joseph has zero runs batted in this season.
Zero RBIs. Zero. On July 22nd! Joseph has 94 plate appearances. That might not seem like a lot, but let’s put this in perspective by looking at the Texas Rangers. The Ranger who has the most plate appearances without an RBI is Cole Hamels, with six. For Rangers position players, the honor goes to Joey Gallo, who has batted once.
Around the league, there are three players who have two plate appearances and one RBI. Josh Bell of the Pirates already has four RBIs in four plate appearances. Nobody this year has an RBI in only one plate appearance, but there have been 90 times when a player finished a season with exactly one trip to the plate and at least one RBI.
It’s just not that difficult to end up with an RBI somewhere along the way, even for a player who’s really struggling. In fact, in this particular stat Joseph is light years ahead of the competition. Nobody else is even close.
As far as I can tell, second place goes to Jordan Pacheco, a backup corner infielder / pinch hitter for the Reds. Pacheco has 51 plate appearances this season, barely more than half of Joseph’s total. He’s hitting .157/.157/.235 on the year, but he has a semi-respectable .675 career OPS.
Pacheco isn’t good (his career WAR is -4.1), but he isn’t usually sub-.300-OPS bad. Similarly to Joseph, it seems like he’s just having a especially bad start to the year. Pacheco also plays for an awful Reds team, while Joseph plays for one of the best offensive teams in the game.
The only other position player close to Pacheco is Twins backup catcher J.R. Murphy (apparently he did away with the “John Ryan” thing), who has a .219 OPS in 44 plate appearances. He’s...struggling. It’s not that odd to have no RBIs when you have three hits.
After Murphy, we hit a big, tightly-bunched group of NL starting pitchers. Leading that pack is old friend Wei-Yin Chen. Like Murphy, he has zero RBIs in 44 plate appearances. His OPS is a bit easier to to calculate, though - it’s .000. On the bright side, that hasn’t brought down his career OPS, which is also .000 (he came to the plate eight times as an Oriole).
Clearly, Joseph is in a class of his own this year, but how does he rank historically? Actually, pretty high. If his season were to end today, he’d be tied with Ron Darling for the 19th-most plate appearances in a season without an RBI. If he logs seven more trips to the plate, he’d move all the way to ninth.
The all-time record is held by Oscar Jones, a starting pitcher for the 1904 Brooklyn Superbas. He came to the plate 150 times that year without driving in a single run. Jones was actually not entirely inept at the plate that season: he hit a surprisingly decent .175.
Mainly, Jones was just a victim of circumstance - he played for a 56-97 team in the midst of the dead ball era. The Superbas had a team OPS of .592, so it’s not like he had a ton of chances to drive runners home.
For position players, the dubious honor goes to Gene Good, a left fielder for the Boston Beaneaters in 1906. Good was terrible that year, but he also had even worse teammates than Jones - Boston was 49-102 that season and had a .287 team OBP.
The rest of the list is filled with pitchers and dead ball era players until we get to Steve Staggs, a second baseman for the A’s who had 97 RBI-less plate appearances in 1978. Amazingly, he had an OPS+ of 109 that year. He had a .392 on-base percentage! Staggs played for an absolutely heinous offensive club. The 1978 A’s were last in the AL in virtually every offensive category. They scored 532 runs, 58 less than the second-worst team.
That’s what makes Joseph’s season so remarkable - the Orioles are a good offensive team, but one of their players is an 0-for-4 away from being the position player with the most RBI-free plate appearances since 1910. So, how has this happened? Luck.
Well, mostly luck. Let’s not pretend the lack of RBIs is all luck; he did head into yesterday’s game hitting .155/.211/.179 after all. It’s more than just poor hitting, though.
Joseph plays for the Orioles, and in case you haven’t noticed, the Orioles score a lot of their runs via the homer. Most of those home runs are being hit by the guys in the middle of the order, which means someone who usually hits eighth is going to find himself coming up to the plate with the bases empty quite a bit - in this case, 54 out of 94 times.
Joseph has batted 18 times with runners in scoring position, and he actually singled in two of those situations. Both were line drives to right field with a runner on second. The runners were Ryan Flaherty and Chris Davis, and the right fielders were Mookie Betts and Jose Bautista, who both have well above-average arms. Both runners were held at third.
Joseph also doubled with Nolan Reimold on first base, on May 11th against the Twins. The hit was to right field, and the right fielder was Miguel Sano, who has a cannon. Reimold was held at third.
Caleb Joseph has no control over who’s playing right field. He hasn’t been good at the plate, but that’s not why he has no RBIs. If any of those three right fielders had a crappy arm, this article wouldn’t exist. Joseph would have one RBI, and nobody’s got anything to say about a guy with one RBI. It’s like a 40 degree day.
Joseph has been unlucky, and this is more of a statistical quirk than anything. Unfortunately for Caleb, this is baseball, and baseball fans love statistical quirks. For his sake, and the Orioles’, let’s hope this one goes away sooner rather than later.