There are not many names worth getting excited about in the Orioles minor league system, especially in its upper levels. Bowie and Norfolk are a barren wasteland. Tumbleweeds roll through on a regular basis. In this desolate place there is one player standing among a sea of non-prospects. His name is Chance Sisco.
A second round pick by the Orioles in the 2013 draft, Sisco was one of several catchers the Orioles drafted out of the high school ranks that year. At the time they drafted him from Santiago High School in Corona, California, Sisco was relatively new to the position, with scouting director Gary Rajsich even saying the night the O’s drafted Sisco that he is “a hitter who catches.”
In his time in the professional ranks, Sisco has lived up to that reputation. The 2016 season was no exception. At age 21, the Orioles challenged Sisco by sending him to Double-A Bowie, where he was more than three years younger than the average player in his league. Sisco responded by batting .317/.403/.430 for the season, including a few games with Triple-A Norfolk in the last weekend.
Your eyes do not deceive you. That is a player with an on-base percentage above .400 over 497 plate appearances. It can be done. One thing that it’s always important to keep in mind with minor leaguers is “don’t scout the box scores.”
How a player like Sisco looks while putting up numbers like that is more important for his possible future MLB success than the numbers themselves. After all, if he made it to MLB, he’d be facing better pitchers than he was seeing in Bowie this year, and would be putting the ball in play against better defenses.
The performance stands out all the more because it comes at a position where the Orioles are not getting much positive this season. Their catchers have combined to bat .230/.283/.346 this season, which ranks them 25th out of 30 MLB teams by OPS. That’s headed up by a disappointing year at the plate from Matt Wieters (.692 OPS, a career worst) as well as Caleb Joseph and the quest for a no RBI season.
Add in that Wieters is a pending free agent who doesn’t seem to be playing his way towards another qualifying offer and a young catcher who just posted a .400 OBP at Bowie looks very good indeed.
Not so fast, though. Even the prospect guru who’s sunniest on Sisco, ESPN’s Keith Law, doesn’t project him as the Opening Day 2017 catcher. Law had Sisco at #81 prior to the season and up to #41 at his midseason update. Calling Sisco “the Orioles’ catcher of the future,” Law blessed him as “a solid-average receiver” and believes Sisco will keep improving as a catcher.
Sisco’s place on a top prospect list is not universally agreed upon. You won’t find him at all on MLB Pipeline’s top 100 prospects - they don’t even rate Sisco as the best Orioles prospect, putting him behind this year’s first round pick, Cody Sedlock. Those folks are not quite as sold on Sisco’s current ability as a catcher.
There does seem to be some good reason to wonder about whether Sisco is presently up to handling the position at the MLB level. One of those reasons is whether Sisco will be up for making the jump from his minor league workload - 87 starts in the 2016 season - to the 120+ start range you’d expect for an MLB starting catcher. That’s a lot of extra wear and tear.
Another thing to wonder about is whether Sisco would have a problem controlling the running game. One area where Wieters still does well as a defensive catcher is throwing out runners. Wieters has caught 812.1 innings this season and had only 52 runners attempt to steal on him. He’s thrown out 17 of those, giving him a 33% caught stealing rate. That’s pretty good, a bit higher than the league average of 30%.
In his 87 games at catcher this year, Sisco caught 754.1 innings. A whopping 136 runners took off when Sisco was behind the dish. Sisco threw out 33 of them, a success rate of 24%. That’s not embarrassingly bad - the league average CS% at the MLB level was 25% as recently as 2012 - but it stands out. Guys think they can run on Sisco, and they’re running. A lot.
This is another one of those things where you can’t entirely scout a box score. On whom are all of those runners stealing? Maybe the Bowie pitching staff was chock full of Ubaldo Jimenez-types who can’t hold a runner to save their lives. But maybe Sisco needs to find a way to improve his pop time or work on the strength or accuracy of his throws, if these are things he is capable of improving.
Add it all up and maybe it’s fair to say Sisco could use another 2-3 months of Triple-A next year to do a little more polishing on those skills. The Orioles may not, and probably should not, proceed into free agency assuming Sisco can be their starting catcher for the full season. Still, unless something goes wrong, he seems like he’ll be forcing his way up into a weak position before too much longer.
The Orioles drafting and developing has been deservedly maligned in recent years, yet Sisco, a second round pick, is looking like a nice success. By the time all is said and done, a fair few of the teams who made the 60 picks before Sisco came off the board might be wishing they’d had their eyes on him instead.
It won’t be very long before the Orioles could really use Sisco. If all keeps going well, he will be there to fill that need for years to come. If only there were more prospects in the system like this.