The Orioles entered the 2017 season, like most teams, with two major league catchers, but it was a pretty clear “stop-gap” situation. The presumed starter hadn’t been tendered a contract by his previous team in the offseason. The backup went an entire season batting .172/.216/.197 without a single RBI.
The top minor league prospect, Chance Sisco was still another season away from being ready for the show. And the team’s former four-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner at the position bolted in the winter for a nearby “rival”.
It sure didn’t seem ideal, but it turns out that the ragtag team the O’s have put together behind the plate may, at the moment, represent the best group of catchers in all of baseball, and they have almost certainly been an upgrade over whatever Wieters would have been able to provide.
Going into action on Monday, the trio of Welington Castillo, Caleb Joseph and Francisco Pena were slashing a combined .315/.329/.510 with five home runs, 17 RBI, 11 doubles and a triple for the Orioles. That batting average (.315) is the best in MLB, while the slugging percentage (.510) is third overall.
Broken down by player; Castillo is hitting .314/.333/.443 over 17 games. Joseph is .284/.294/.478 over 19 games, and Pena has a ridiculous .571/.571/1.429 over just seven at-bats.
All of this success is despite the most experienced of the bunch, Castillo, missing out since April 30 with a shoulder injury. It has been Joseph carrying the bulk of the workload, during which he managed to snap his RBI drought. In fact, he has driven in nine runs already this season; nine more than in all of 2016. Added to that was an outstanding two-home run performance from Pena against the Royals over the weekend.
Wieters has been no slouch for the Nationals. When catching, he has slashed .282/.362/.447 with four home runs and 15 RBI; not to mention the heart-breaking walk-off against his former employer in what turned out to be the series finale between the two teams last week. But he has been just a touch worse than the Baltimore trio and is doing it in the National League East, a dip in competition from their American League counterparts, to be sure.
Baseball Reference and Fangraphs both calculate WAR values for all major league players. BR issues a WAR of 0.6 for Castillo, 0.2 for Joseph and 0.3 for Pena, equaling 1.1 overall. Wieters gets a 0.4 from them.
Over at Fangraphs, the former Oriole has a whopping 0.8 WAR, whereas Castillo (0.4), Joseph (0.4) and Pena (0.3) add up to 1.1 again. WAR is not the end-all-be-all stat, but it paints a picture that, again, the O’s are a bit better off without “Switch-Hitting Jesus”.
Defensively, things are a little tougher to determine. Are the Orioles significantly better off than they were with Wieters at the helm? That’s up for discussion. But the facts are that the trio has thrown out eight of the 27 would-be base-stealers (29.6%) compared to the five of 26 (19.2%) that the Nationals have thrown out. Wieters himself has tossed out just three of 16 (18.8%).
Pitch framing is an evolving world of statistical analysis, but the best information we have comes from StatCorner. According to them, Wieters has cost the Nationals 6.0 runs thanks to his pitch framing, or lack thereof. This group of O’s catchers has saved the Baltimore pitching staff 1.1 runs total. Joseph has led the way with 3.4 runs saved whereas Castillo and Pena have cost 1.9 and 0.4 runs, respectively.
Of course, these are small sample sizes. But if you go back in time on the StatCorner website, you will find that Wieters has consistently been a well below-average framer according to their method, Joseph has always been pretty good and Castillo is slightly below average. So, the results this season aren’t exactly surprising.
The performance of the three catchers the Orioles have used so far this season has been a pleasant surprise. Top prospect Chance Sisco is the heir apparent at the position, and he has already reached triple-A as a 22-year-old, but the organization did not want to rush his development. Castillo, Joseph and Pena have helped to ensure that they will not need to do that.
Despite the unexpected success of this trio, this does remain a “stop gap” season at the position. Castillo has a player option for 2018, but if he keeps on hitting, there will be a multi-year contract and bigger money waiting for him in free agency. Joseph is a fan favorite and Pena has been a good soldier riding the shuttle back and forth from Norfolk, but both have pretty clear flaws that will keep them from being regular starters.
The fact is that this will likely be Sisco’s job come Opening Day 2018, but the play of the current Orioles has allowed Sisco to learn at his own pace. Based on his current batting line (always a poor thing to judge for minor leaguers), Sisco does indeed need a little more seasoning. Through 29 games with the Tides, he is slashing just .240/.336/.344 with one home run and 15 RBI. Behind the plate, he has thrown out six of 33 (18.2 %) base runners.
Sisco is very young for the level, and is getting some of his first exposure to many pitchers who are major league-caliber. He will do well to spend an entire summer in Norfolk and then join the big Birds in September as a call-up and be able to pick the brain of some more experienced backstops.
It was tough to see Wieters leave Baltimore in the offseason. He was clearly a Buck Showalter favorite. He had a number of clutch hits, and was part of the revitalization of Baltimore baseball. And It will be exciting to see Sisco come to Charm City one day and fill his shoes. But this current crop of Orioles catchers have been pretty impressive. They’ve given the team a perfect bridge between eras in the club’s history without missing a beat.