Just a few months ago, Chance Sisco was dominating the Grapefruit League down in sunny Sarasota as the Orioles prepared for what most already knew would be a lost season in Baltimore. Sisco, it seemed, was set to be the team’s starting catcher on Opening Day. Why wouldn’t he be? The sweet swinger with questionable defensive abilities was the most promising backstop in the organization and, even though his rookie campaign was a bit of a disaster, there was still enough potential to make him the leader in the clubhouse.
Then Jesus Sucre showed up to spring training. A few weeks later, Mike Elias claimed Pedro Severino off of waivers. And just like that, Sisco was moved to minor league camp, and rather than heading to the Bronx with the Orioles, he packed his bags for Gwinnett, Georgia, where the Triple-A Norfolk Tides would open up their 2019 regular season with much less fanfare.
Sisco’s demotion was not a result of poor offensive output while down in Florida. The 24-year-old was smoking the competition to the tune of a .382/.533/.765 batting line to go along with four home runs, 10 walks and nine strikeouts. Based on stats alone, he had been one of the most productive hitters on the circuit. But the coaching staff wanted him to improve his defense, and his success at the plate was nothing new. He hit well in the previous spring (.429/.474/.800 in 18 games) only to flop once the real games got going.
Fast forward to now and it feels like Sisco, in the big leagues again, has done what he needs to if he wants to become a permanent fixture on the Orioles roster going forward.
The Baltimore Sun’s Nathan Ruiz published a piece on Sunday evening that spoke to this point. It explains that Sisco feels more comfortable this season than he did in 2018, that he’s not concerned about the team’s selection of fellow catcher Adley Rutschman number one overall in this year’s draft, and that manager Brandon Hyde has noticed considerable defensive improvement from the Orioles former number one prospect.
Those are all important factors in determining whether or not Sisco can hack it as a big leaguer longterm. But what remains of paramount importance for him above all else is the same as it ever was: Sisco needs to a be a force at the plate. All other facets of his game are secondary.
Throughout Sisco’s time in the minors, the story on him was always the same. He was a line drive machine with a decent eye at the plate and just enough power to be passable. This excerpt from a Baseball America scouting report in 2016 sums up the industry’s view of him at the time:
Sisco’s calling card has long been his smooth left-handed swing and feel for the barrel. His swing is more conducive to producing hard line drives than elevating, but he has shown the ability to drive the ball over the fence to all fields.
That ability to “drive the ball over the fence” rarely materialized ahead of this season. Across 493 minor league games coming into 2019, Sisco had hit just 28 home runs. His career-high for home runs in a single season was seven. As a catcher, the bar for offensive acceptability is lower than other positions, but those are still disappointing outcomes for a guy who was continually rated among the brightest up-and-comers in the organization.
So far in 2019, it’s as if a flip has been switched and Sisco suddenly has unlocked his hidden ability to hit the long ball. In 44 games with Norfolk, Sisco went deep 10 times prior to his call up. In just seven games so far with the O’s, he’s already left the yard twice. That’s 12 home runs in less than half of a season. Such a drastic uptick begs the question, what changed?
For starters, Sisco definitely appears heavier than he did last summer. The Orioles website still lists him at the same 6-foor-2, 195 pounds that he was in 2018, but there is a noticeable thickness that didn’t used to be there, especially in his legs. It’s not a bad thing, and it’s a natural part of an athlete maturing and growing into their frame. And it often comes with added power.
But a few extra pounds won’t result in a home run boost on its own. Sisco has also seemed to overhaul his entire offensive approach in order to favor more power.
It’s only been a few games, but Sisco’s launch angle is drastically different this time around, jumping from his career average of 13.8 degrees to 18.4 degrees in 2019. Based on available data from his performance in Norfolk this year, this doesn’t seem to be a fluke. His 30.1% line drive rate with the Tides is the highest he has posted since 2015 in High-A.
There is some give and take with this approach, of course. Sisco has walked in just 9.8% of Triple-A plate appearances, which is lower than we are used to seeing from the strike zone-conscious catcher. But he still managed a .383 on-base percentage, so there was room to swing a bit more freely. Walks are nice, but extra-base hits are nicer.
Additionally, it seems like he has leaned into his ability to pull the ball, which was something he had gotten away from in 2018. This year, he has pulled 50% of balls put in play at Triple-A. Last year in Norfolk, he was pulling only 40.5% of his contact. That number was down to 38.3% with the Orioles. Stats like this may cause teams to shift against Sisco, but it won’t matter if he hits pitches into the seats or into outfield gaps with regularity.
For so long, there have been concerns about Sisco’s power potential. “Sure, he would hit for average, but the home runs may be hard to come by,” they said. At the very least, his performance thus far proves there is some decent power somewhere in his body. Now it becomes about consistency.
Sisco is right to not be overly worried about the arrival of Rutschman. Teams need more than one catcher, and if Sisco hits well enough then he will play himself into an enviable situation with either the Orioles or elsewhere.
In the Ruiz piece linked above, the California native also said that he takes ground balls everyday and even played first base in a game against the Astros earlier this season. Granted, the ability to play first base does not exactly make someone into a utility player, but it adds at least some level of dimension to his defensive abilities and increases his potential value to major league teams.
Is the Sisco power here to stay? Only time will tell. But he is clearly doing something different at the plate this season and it has yielded positive results so far. Here’s to hoping it continues for the foreseeable future.