Losing a club record 115 games was a rough way for the Orioles to spend their summer. But rebuilding clubs can find bright spots in a season like we just endured, such as top prospects using meaningless games to grow into quality major league players. That, sadly, did not happen for catcher Chance Sisco this season.
Sisco was selected by Baltimore in the second round (61st overall) of the 2013 draft out of Santiago High School in California. He came into the organization with a reputation of being a strong hitter. His .306/.386/.420 slash line throughout the minor leagues has shown that scouting report to be accurate. While his defensive skills behind the plate lagged behind his offense throughout his minor league career, his overall game developed to the point where he was the Orioles’ top prospect in 2017. Baseball America, Major League Baseball, and Baseball Prospectus all had him in their top 100 prospects at some point.
The path for Sisco to become the O’s everyday catcher appeared cleared twice with the departure of Matt Wieters and Welington Castillo as free agents. But he did not seize the opportunity, as his 2017 OPS of .736 at Norfolk was the lowest season total as a professional.
He appeared to finally get his opportunity entering this season when he made the Opening Day roster for the first time in his career. His .419/.471/.839 spring training slash line to go along with eight extra base hits in seventeen games is what earned him his spot on the roster. Caleb Joseph entered the season as the starter, but Buck Showalter indicated that Sisco would get playing time.
Sisco was used quite often by Showalter in the first third of the season. He started twelve games in April and fourteen in May. Through June 18, he was having an average offensive season: a .674 OPS with two homers and sixteen RBI. His OPS was an impressive .340 but he was striking out in over one third of his at bats. It added up to a 0.5 WAR, which was pretty good for the 2018 Orioles. At that point, the Orioles demoted him to Norfolk with the intent of having Joseph and Andrew Susac handle the catching duties. Tyler Young did a great job of recapping the O’s perplexing decision of sending a top prospect back to the minors. He should have remained in Baltimore, but his performance didn’t force the O’s to keep him around.
The Orioles catching situation was a revolving door and Sisco was recalled in time to start on June 28. Sisco was back in Baltimore, but his offensive game didn’t join him. In eight starts (11 appearances) from then through July 12, his slash line fell from .218/.340/.328 to .195/.306/.289. Ouch. He was demoted again and did not return to the Orioles until September. He appeared in five games (three starts) that month and did not reach base. Ouch again.
The disastrous final two stints in Baltimore on the season ruined what was a pedestrian start to the season for Sisco. His final 2018 numbers were .181/.288/.269 with two homers and 16 RBI in 63 games. His OPS was a dreadful .557. For a player whose offensive ability was his calling card in the minors, these numbers are concerning.
Sisco’s defense, which was considered his weakness as a prospect, was surprisingly decent this season. In 385.1 innings behind the plate, he threw out 31% of attempted base thieves. The league average was 28%. He allowed only one passed ball and committed one error. Fangraphs rated him as costing the team one run defensively. Baseball Reference’s sabermetric stats all place him within two runs of league average. Pitchers ended up with a 5.02 ERA when Sisco was behind the plate, better than the team’s overall ERA of 5.18.
All in all, it is hard to look at 2018 as anything other than a disappointment for Chance Sisco. While we could argue that the decision to send him down to Norfolk in June was a poor one, it wouldn’t have happened if Sisco would have produced offensive numbers closer to what he put up in the minor leagues. With that said, the progress he made defensively is encouraging.
Change in leadership across the board will mean a fresh start for Sisco. Joseph and Wynns will be in the mix catching duties next season, but neither of those players is a particularly attractive option. Sisco’s minor league numbers do not figure to lie; the guy has a track record of hitting. His hitting style also translates well to the highest level. He is unlike so many of the all-or-nothing hitters we’ve seen in Baltimore. Scouts have raved about his ability to take the ball to the opposite field and his knowledge of the strike zone, hence the .386 minor league OBP.
2019 is not looking bright for the Orioles. But one thing we can reasonably expect and root for is Sisco to seize the starting catching opportunity in Baltimore. If he becomes the plus offensive catcher that scouts and his minor league numbers say he can be, the Orioles will have a nice backstop in place should they contend again in three or four years.