On April 29, 2017, Caleb Joseph broke the streak of futility that defined his 2016 season by driving in a run. He went on to drive in 28 on the season. In this way, the year was a success for Joseph: People could finally talk about anything else about him. He also avoided any injuries that result from insufficient cup protection.
I'll just say this from the outset: I like Joseph more than most Orioles. I've liked him since he was a freshly-drafted prospect, a seventh-round pick in 2008, when he offered a self-deprecating quote in an interview: "Someone has to be Matt Wieters's backup." I like his quirky air drum routine, his fondness for describing big hits by saying, "Kid's gotta eat," and his impersonation of bench coach John Russell.
I mention all of this because what follows are probably kinder words than would be otherwise justified by a catcher who batted .256/.287/.413 for the season and threw out just 18% of would-be base-stealers for the year. There are, of course, better catchers in baseball, but who cares about that when we're talking about the fun backup catcher who once did a Jumbotron segment where he revealed he had a high school art class with Kesha?
It's selling Joseph short to even call him just a backup catcher this season. He ended up playing a lot more than you might expect a backup to play, and not only when starter Welington Castillo suffered his own inadequate cup-related injury and had to miss time.
Joseph, who is now 31 years old, split the playing time at catcher almost 50-50 in July and August and started 69 games on the year. He even added a little versatility, playing nine innings across eight games at third base for reasons that are known only to manager Buck Showalter. Call it another fun thing in the Joseph bag of tricks.
Whether you want to call it a good season for Joseph or not depends on which of the Wins Above Replacement metrics you want to use. Baseball Reference puts Joseph in at a solid 1.6 WAR, very impressive considering he only had 266 plate appearances. Fangraphs, on the other hand, only put Joseph at 0.4 WAR. That's still fine for a backup catcher, but it's not a "Whoa, what a great backup catcher!" number.
The difference between the two lies in how they rate Joseph's defense. Although Joseph had the poor caught-stealing percentage this season, there are other facets to the game for a catcher - without even getting into stuff like pitch sequencing and overall game-calling that aren't measured in those metrics at all.
Even bringing up the idea of "catcher ERA" is generally grounds to get laughed out of the room by today's advanced baseball thinkers. With that said, the difference between the 4.23 ERA while Joseph was catching this year compared to the 5.60 ERA while Castillo was catching is substantial. Maybe that can be waved away by who tended to catch which pitchers, but that's really something.
One way that Joseph helps out his pitchers is with solid pitch framing skills. As a fan, I find the idea of pitch framing to be a frustrating one. The answer to it should be to have more competent umpires. Until that day comes, though, framing is real, with bad catchers losing balls in the strike zone and good catchers stealing strikes outside of it. Joseph is one of the good ones.
By one measure, Joseph generated an extra 35 strikes for O's pitchers, or about one strike every other game. It doesn't sound like a lot, but that's one of those little things that adds up.
That's especially true when comparing Joseph to his teammate, Castillo, whose framing numbers were awful. Castillo lost 98 strikes this year, or about one per game. Former teammate Wieters was even worse for Washington, losing 118 strikes. O's pitchers are in good hands with Joseph, not that this helped some of them at times this season.
It's too early to be sure about what Joseph's role will be on the team next season. Though it seems likely that Castillo will choose to become a free agent, it's not clear whether the Orioles will decide to go with prospect Chance Sisco right from Opening Day.
Joseph could end up being the primary starter for the first month or so while Sisco is given more time to work on his defense in Triple-A. This would, conveniently for the Orioles, also keep Sisco from racking up MLB service time for a little while.
Even once Sisco is on the team for good, Joseph figures to still play more than a backup's share: The prospect has never caught more than 834.1 innings in a season, which he just reached this year. It's a long way from that to a Wieters-like 1000+ innings caught in a year.
Joseph will be entering his second year of arbitration next season. He qualified as a "Super Two" player this season, which means that he will have a total of four seasons of arbitration eligibility instead of the standard three and he won't become a free agent until after the 2020 season. MLB Trade Rumors projects he'll have a $1.4 million salary for 2018. The kid is definitely going to eat.