Orioles pitching this year has been better than anyone had any right to expect from a rotation headlined by Jordan Lyles and Bruce Zimmermann. For those of us who are not professional pitching coaches, manager (and former catcher) Brandon Hyde has spelled out loudly, clearly, and repeatedly one of the reasons why. As MASN’s Roch Kubatko writes:
Manager Brandon Hyde is very happy with his catching tandem of Robinson Chirinos and Anthony Bemboom, specifically the impact on the pitching staff. Others have mentioned it, too.
They won’t block Adley Rutschman or delay his arrival, but they’ve been a positive influence.
Well, it’s more of a mixed bag than that. If you’re reading this, you don’t need me to tell you that this backstop pair hasn’t hit well. Chirinos and Bemboom are batting well south of the Mendoza line, with a puny OPS of .448 and .427, respectively. “It’s been hard,” says Chirinos himself of his flailing work at the plate. “I don’t think I have anything like this in my early career when I was a rookie, but definitely I understand more now what I need to do to get over this.” Not since he was a rookie! Chirinos has a career OPS of .746. Offense is down everywhere, but not this much.
So what, exactly, is the value add here at the backstop position? Or rather, to put it in WAR terms, how much, exactly, is the value added? Has the Bemboom/Chirinos platoon been better than replacement level?
Answer: they have not.
Defensively, there are real bright spots. The O’s rank behind only Oakland in caught stealing percentage as a team, at 47%. Only two teams in baseball have been run on less, Oakland and the Yankees. This is largely thanks to Robinson Chirinos, who ranks second among all catchers in caught stealing percentage, with six runners thrown out, an impressive 54.5%. Bemboom, No. 16 with a caught stealing rate of 38%, is no slouch either.
In terms of runs saved above average, O’s catchers rank No. 3 and No. 12 in the league, respectively. They’re both Top 20 in arm strength, according to Baseball Reference metrics. Not. Too. Shabby!
On the other hand, when it comes to two vital catcher defensive skills—calling a good game and pitch-faming—neither is seen as a standout.
Game-calling-wise, Chirinos is considered just OK, worth 0 runs total, but when it comes to pitch framing, baseball metrics are very unkind. They rank Chirinos 58 of 58 catchers in runs saved by pitch framing (-4) and according to BRef, 82 of 82 (-3).) (Bemboom, for what it’s worth, is ranked average in both game calling and pitch framing.)
What’s that, Chirinos in Pedro Severino territory? Truthfully, it’s hard to square with the eye test, for two reasons. One, you keep hearing O’s pitchers crediting the catchers for calling good games in 2022 (here’s an example, but you can find a lot more). By all accounts, Chirinos embodies the whole “cagey veteran catcher” thing perfectly, and folks seem to like working with Bemboom very much, as well. Two, it’s not clear how said pitch framing data takes account of the Orioles’ new approach of “setting up more in the middle part of the plate than we have in the past,” as Hyde has explained. “You see a lot of teams doing that now, especially with stuff guys who are letting it play on the white part of the plate, and so far, so good with our guys.” For pitchers whose stuff has natural movement (think Dillon Tate, Cionel Pérez and Jorge López), it’s less important to be finicky about painting the corner than just to aim the pitch toward the plate and let ‘er rip. So far, the Orioles are third in the AL in percentage strikes thrown, so whatever the new approach is doing, it seems to be working.
Anyway, let’s assume that O’s catchers are good at defense: that is, that they not only throw out plenty of batters but also make their pitchers feel calm and call good games, which is what we seem to be witnessing, at least.
Even with all that, the bats are still dragging the team down, way down. Robinson Chirinos ranks literally last of all catchers in Total WAR, according to Fangraphs, at -0.6. Bemboom, too, is in the red, at -0.2. (For comparison, the Cubs’ Wilson Contreras has a value of 1.2 WAR on the season.) They’re bottom-20 in barrels and hard hit percentage, and Chirinos’ exit velocity of 84.9 mph on average is the sixth-worst of all MLB catchers.
With all of this in mind, it gets harder and harder to justify the delayed Adley promotion—except, of course, in terms of the ownership’s steadfast insistence that the needs of the big-league club are irrelevant to prospect promotion decisions. Got it, got it, got it.
So for the front office, it might not matter that the Orioles are stuck in a brutal stretch against the AL East, some of the deadliest teams in baseball. Or that before Wednesday night, the Orioles had plated nine runs in their last six games. Or that Adley Rutschman has the tools to match the current O’s catchers’ defensive output while eclipsing their hitting. For O’s fans, all of this is of course of great importance and urgency.
The good news is: in a week or so (fingers crossed), the catcher position will be Rutschman’s alone, and all of these complaints will be behind us.