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The Orioles’ catcher platoon has changed

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When the 2018 season started, Caleb Joseph was the de facto starter at catcher. But with subpar offensive numbers and a plummeting team record, the Orioles have been turning to Chance Sisco more recently.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As of Wednesday, Chance Sisco had started four of the last five games at catcher for the Orioles. Sisco even hit second in the lineup for the first time this year on Wednesday. He was scheduled to do so one night earlier, on Tuesday, but that game was postponed.

It’s becoming apparent that Caleb Joseph is not the full time starter anymore. Joseph was the number one catcher going into the year, starting seven out of 11 games to start the season. But that trend changed quickly.

Maybe Buck Showalter is just going with the hot hand right now, and Joseph will reestablish himself as the starter again somewhere down the line. Or maybe the future is now, and the Orioles are willing to see what Sisco can do with the full time catcher’s job.

There were a lot of reasons for Joseph to begin the season as the starting catcher. He is the older, more seasoned player between himself and Sisco, so why not let the young guy learn on the job as the backup? Joseph is 31 years old, with a bit over four seasons of big league experience. Sisco is 23, with his only taste of the majors before this year coming as a September call up in 2017. In 18 at bats last year, Sisco hit .333/.455/.778 with two doubles, two home runs, four RBI, three walks and seven strikeouts. Not bad for a rookie.

In limited at bats so far this season, Sisco’s offensive numbers have eclipsed those of Joseph. Sisco is hitting .255/.327/.383, while Joseph is hitting .100/.122/.150. Sisco has three doubles, one home run, six RBI, four walks and 22 strikeouts. Joseph has one triple, two RBI, one walk, and 17 strikeouts. Let’s not pretend Sisco’s numbers are elite, but they’re obviously head and shoulders above Joseph’s current stats.

While Joseph has shown an aptitude for hitting in his lengthy minor league career, he has not been able to consistently produce at the major league level. In eight minor league seasons, Joseph hit .268/.326/.425. His best year in the minors came at Double-A Bowie in 2013 when he hit .299/.346/.494 with 22 home runs and 97 RBI. Over 332 career major league games, Joseph is hitting just .220/.269/.353. He infamously went without an RBI just two seasons ago in an injury shortened 2016.

As a second round draft pick in 2013 out of Santiago High School in Corona, California, Chance Sisco has the pedigree of a professional hitter. Throughout his time in the minors, he has hit for a high average and maintained a strong on-base percentage. His career minor league batting line over 455 games looks like this: .311/.390/.426. The only middling number there may be is the slugging percentage, but Sisco is a young, strong kid who possesses a line drive swing with the potential to develop more power in time. And besides, the Oriole lineup is already full of home run or bust type hitters, so maybe a high-average, high-on base guy like Sisco is the perfect change of pace to help balance out the offense.

One of the knocks on Sisco as recently as spring training was his inability to control the running game. Down in Sarasota, Sisco only managed to throw out one of ten baserunners, a measly .091 caught stealing percentage (CS%). But that trend has reversed in the early part of this season. In 15 games, Sisco has thrown out seven of 12 base stealers, which is good for a .583 CS%, the best in baseball. Joseph, by comparison, has only thrown out two of nine baserunners for a .222 CS%.

In his career, Joseph has a .303 CS%. Last season, that number was .182. In five minor league seasons, Sisco’s career CS% is .210.

But how do these two catchers handle the pitching staff, you ask?

Joseph’s catcher’s ERA since 2014, year by year, is 3.01, 3.65, 4.28, 4.23 and 4.34 this year. That comes out to a 3.57 career CERA. Whether it’s pitch framing, pitch calling or just intangibles, pitchers tend to perform better when Caleb Joseph is behind the plate.

But it is somewhat troubling to see Joseph’s CERA basically increase every single year since he got to the majors; the exception being 2016 to 2017, when his CERA decreased .05.

Going into Wednesday’s game, Sisco had a 5.38 CERA, which ranked 26th out of 29 eligible catchers. That’s more than an entire run higher than Caleb Joseph on the year. It’s kind of understandable though, considering Sisco’s inexperience at the major league level and with the Orioles pitching staff.

But it’s hard to reconcile defense versus offense between these two catchers. Buck tends to prefer strong defense over all else, but there are exceptions. Not to mention, youth is on the side of Sisco in this case. And with the Orioles losing at their current rate, it will be more and more difficult to let him spend too much time on the bench. The team will have to see what Sisco can do with regular at bats in order to better assess their future and his future, too.