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Chance Sisco is poised for a step forward in 2020

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The once top prospect has become a forgotten man for the rebuilding Orioles.

Baltimore Orioles v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

Go back two years and Chance Sisco was in a very different situation than where he finds himself today. Prior to the 2018 season, Sisco was regarded as one of the most promising prospects in all of minor league baseball. MLB Pipeline had him at the very top of the Orioles list of youngsters and listed among the elite catching prospects. He was set to battle in the spring to be the team’s big league starter for 2018 and beyond.

Sisco’s career outlook has done nothing but darken since that spring. Over the last two seasons, the former second-round pick has bounced between Norfolk and Baltimore, playing 88 games for the Tides and 122 games for the O’s. Defensive concerns have followed him throughout his professional career, but perhaps the more worrisome development has been his inability to produce at the plate. In his major league career, Sisco is hitting .203/.319/.357 with an 84 OPS+, not great for an offense-first player.

These disappointing performances have put an end to the talk that Sisco is Baltimore’s “catcher of the future.” The club made Adley Rutschman the top pick in last year’s draft for a reason, and much of the industry already regards the Oregon State product as the best catching prospect since Buster Posey.

If that’s not enough, Sisco may not even be the team’s catcher of the moment. He took a backseat to Pedro Severino in 2019, and seems poised to do the same in 2020. Orioles manager Brandon Hyde recently chimed in about the catching situation and simply said that he expected Severino was “going to play a lot, like he did last year,” but did not mention Sisco or going into any specifics about playing time.

From one perspective, those comments could be taken as a positive for Sisco. Perhaps the club has plans to get him involved more than the 59 games he played last season. On the other hand, if Hyde was so psyched about Sisco why didn’t he say so? Also, if the team was so confident in the abilities of Sisco and the other catchers they have in tow, why has there been so much chatter about adding a veteran backstop to the organization?

The fact that Sisco remains on the 40-man roster is evidence that the current front office does believe that he can provide something of value. His relatively modest salary and remaining options are also helpful. Whatever the case may be, the time for Sisco to establish himself as a capable major league catcher is running short.

Sisco did take steps forward on offense in 2019. He improved across the board, adding 39 points to his batting average, 55 points to his on-base percentage and 126 points to his slugging percentage. That jump in production allowed him to post a 96 wRC+ and .319 wOBA, numbers that are pretty solid for the catching position.

There is reason to believe that Sisco could see further improvements in the season to come without making any other drastic changes. He increased his average exit velocity from 87.8 mph to 89 mph in 2019 and posted a career-high hard-hit rate of 39.6%, and yet he saw his batting average on balls in play dip from .293 in 2018 to .276 in 2019. With a bit more luck, Sisco has a chance to boost his numbers once again.

However, even if Sisco does continue to take steps forward with the bat, his chances will be limited if he continues to struggle with the glove.

Among all big league catchers last season, Sisco was in the fifth percentile in pop time and in the seventh percentile for framing. FanGraphs downgraded his defensive rating from +1.4 in 2018 to -7.5 in 2019. And his defensive runs saved also slipped from -1 to -10 despite catching a similar number of innings.

No matter what defensive metric it is, Sisco likely grades out below league average. Baseball Prospectus’s assigned him negative marks for framing (-9.6), blocking (-0.7) and throwing (-0.5).

Soon to be 25 years old, it is unlikely that Sisco makes an unexpected U-turn to become elite behind the plate. But he has had moments as a big leaguer where he looks competent enough to stay at the position. He caught nearly 400 MLB innings in 2018 and posted numbers that were just slightly below average during that time. Sisco will never be a Gold Glover, but he does have the chance to a be a steady contributor for a long time to come.

Pair mediocre defensive with above-average contributions on offense and you have the makings a solid backup catcher. Rutschman is the future for the Orioles, but Sisco could be the present and, perhaps. a small piece of the next competitive team they put together.

As it is for every fringy member of a big league roster, the spring will be incredibly important for Sisco. He has shown in the past that he is a more than capable hitter down in the Grapefruit League (.800 slugging percentage in 2018, .765 slugging percentage in 2019). His numbers during the 2019 regular season started to reflect growth in that area. The focus for 2020 may shift to the defensive side, where he must take steps forward not only to stay in the picture with the Orioles, but to remain a viable big league player beyond next season.