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Chance Sisco had a predictably up-and-down season

It was a season filled with encouraging offensive outbursts and unsurprising struggles behind the plate.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

For most of his professional career analysts have been encouraged by Chance Sisco’s bat but concerned about his glove. Unfortunately, he didn’t do much to dispel those opinions throughout the shortened 2020 season.

Let’s start on a positive note.

Sisco did take a slight step forward offensively. His on-base percentage increased by 31 points, from .333 to .364. His OPS went up by 12 points, from .729 to .741. His OPS+ ballooned from 94 to 105. And his wRC+ jumped by 15 points, from 96 to 111.

Plate discipline was his standout category. His on-base percentage (.364) ranked third on the Orioles, and his 14% walk rate was even better, finishing second-best behind DJ Stewart (17.9%).

While many of those numbers are quite good, it seemed like Sisco was poised for an even bigger breakout. He began the year on a torrid pace at the plate. Through August 6th, he was 5-for-11 with a home run, two doubles, five walks and five strikeouts. His on-base percentage was an outrageous .647.

Understandably, the 25-year-old wasn’t able to maintain that rate. But instead he started to downright struggle. From August 7th through the end of the season, Sisco slashed .184/.317/.310 with three home runs, 12 walks and 36 strikeouts.

As has been the case since he broke into the big leagues, Sisco had trouble avoiding strikeouts. Despite getting just 98 at-bats, he registered the third-most punch-outs on the team behind Renato Nunez and Rio Ruiz, who both had nearly twice as many trips to the plate as Sisco.

While it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions from a 60-game campaign, it does seem Sisco’s approach at the plate differed from year’s prior. Sure, his discipline was better, but his ability to make contact was worse.

According to FanGraphs, Sisco made contact on only 64.7% of his swings. That is the worst mark of his career apart from a 10-game cameo in 2017 (59.5%). Part of the trouble could be that he swung at pitches out of the zone more often (21.3%) than ever before.

On top of that, his swing path looked a bit different. Sisco’s average launch angle on balls in play was 20 degrees, an increase from his previous career-high of 16.4 in 2019. This isn’t a bad thing outright. In fact, he also saw his barrel rate and sweet-spot rate jump from last season as well. But it also correlated with career-worst infield fly ball (9.5%) and soft contact rates (17.5%).

We could keep digging through Sisco’s offensive numbers all day long. He did some good things. He did some bad things. But on the whole this was the best Sisco has looked at the plate for a prolonged period of time.

The same cannot be said for Sisco’s work behind the plate, where he often seemed out of sorts and didn’t do much to aid an Orioles pitching staff that finally looked competent for the first time in a few seasons.

Sisco finished at the bottom of the league among catchers with -3.9 defensive runs above average and -4.5 catcher framing. That’s not great. Also not ideal, but not necessarily his fault, was the fact that he only threw out three of 16 potential base stealers. That’s a pretty putrid 18.75%. That is likely due, in part, to his 2.1 average pop time on throws to second base, which is one of the slowest in the league.

There really isn’t any way to spin the numbers for Sisco. He has been and continues to be a below-average defender behind the plate. However, that isn’t necessarily a career-killer in a vacuum. If he can hit enough then there may still be room for him on major league rosters.

As it pertains to the Orioles specifically, everyone understands what the future holds for the catcher position.

The club’s top prospect, Adley Rutschman, is yet to play above low-A. But he was invited to major league spring training and then spent the entire season at the alternate site in Bowie. Plus, he is taking part in their fall instructional league happening in Sarasota right now. General manager Mike Elias wants Rutschman in Baltimore sooner rather than later and has done what he can to make up for the lack of a minor league season in 2020.

That likely makes 2021 Sisco’s last chance to prove that he can provide value as, at the very least, a part-time catcher in the big leagues before he gets relegated to permanent back-up status or worse.

But this is all easier said than done. Sisco has had defensive issues for years, and it isn’t as simple as waving a magic wand to improve his receiving or pop time. What might be just as possible is to see how capable he is elsewhere on the diamond.

Sisco has played exactly one inning at first base in the big leagues and never stepped out from behind the plate throughout his minor league journey. Prior to his senior year of high school Sisco was a shortstop, but that was nearly a decade ago at this point.

The unfortunate reality is that while Sisco does some nice things with the bat, they are almost entirely negated by his glovework. Moving him to another position could alleviate some of this issues, but the positions at which he could make any sort of passing resemblance to a big leaguer would come with bigger expectations on offense. Those are expectations that he is unlikely to meet.

Sisco will be back at spring training with the O’s in 2021, and he seems like a favorite to make the team. But it’s not a guarantee, and if Elias prefers defense over offense for his backstops this time around then it could be time to move on from the California native and look for other ways to paper over the position as we await the Rutschman era in Baltimore to arrive.