Baltimore Orioles 2020 Preview: Catching Position
The Baltimore Orioles could see a long list of catchers behind the plate this season.
Spring training is quickly approaching, meaning it’s time to start getting excited about the 2020 season. The Baltimore Orioles may end the season at the bottom of the American League East and at the top of the 2021 MLB Draft board, but there are still a handful of storylines to provide intrigue and a farm system full of exciting prospects to keep us entertained.
Leading up to spring training, we’re going to take a position-by-position look at the 2020 Orioles, including a look at what went right at the position in 2019, what went wrong, and what we can expect in 2020.
The future at the catching position in Baltimore is pretty exhilarating to think about. Heralded as one of the top draft prospects ever and recently named the number four overall prospect in baseball, per MLB Pipeline, Adley Rutschman will eventually take over the position, but someone has to keep the home plate umpire company until then.
Current 40-man options/possible spring invites
The Orioles currently feature three catchers on the 40-man roster in Pedro Severino, Chance Sisco, and Austin Wynns. We know that Rutschman will be receiving a formal invitation to spring training, but can speculate that recently acquired backstops Bryan Holaday and Taylor Davis will also be in camp. Martin Cervenka is another name likely to see some time up in big league camp for the first few weeks.
What went right in 2019?
The short answer to this question is…not a lot. I will say that Pedro Severino was a pleasant surprise last season. Claimed off waivers from the Washington Nationals and known for his above-average defense and lack of offense, Severino gave us the opposite in decent offense and struggles behind the plate.
Severino played in 70 games for the Nationals in 2018, posting a wRC+ of 31, a .168/.254/.247 slash, and a -0.7 fWAR. Those numbers looked much better in Baltimore as Severino finished 2019 with a .249/.321/.420 slash with 13 home runs, and a wRC+ of 94. He was worth 0.5 fWAR.
What led to his spike in offense? Severino was much more picky at the plate in 2019, lowering his first-pitch swing rate from 31.5% to 25.2% and lowering his chase rate from 30.8% to 23.9%. He also started hitting the ball harder, increasing his average exit velocity by four mph compared to his 2018 EV (83.2 mph to 87.2 mph).
I’m one of the biggest critics of Chance Sisco out there, but I will give him credit where credit is due. While he managed just a .210 average, Sisco posted a .333 OBP, largely thanks to his 11% walk rate. In 14 June games after his first call-up in 2019, Sisco owned a 1.033 OPS with four home runs and a 165 wRC+, but his early success quickly fell apart. It was at least a glimpse of what Sisco is capable of at the plate.
Offensively, Baltimore Orioles catchers were much more productive than I think most people expected. As a unit, they ranked 21st with a wRC+ of 82, ahead of two fellow AL East teams in the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays. Unfortunately, the defense was a bit of a disaster.
What went wrong in 2019?
Just how bad was that defense last season? According to Baseball Prospectus advanced catching data, both Pedro Severino (-13.8) and Sisco (-11.1) ranked among the top five worst catchers in baseball in Fielding Runs Above Average and Framing Runs (-9.6). For reference, Austin Hedges led baseball with +26 Framing Runs and nine other catchers finished above +10.0.
Severino also committed the second most number of errors behind the plate (8) and ranked second in passed balls (10), however, how much of that can we place on the atrocious pitching staff sent out to the mound in 2019? I don’t think it’s fair to place all the blame on Severino, but those numbers are still very high.
There was also a high rate of stolen bases against this unit. Severino was able to cut down just 24% of base stealers, a 10% drop from 2018. Sisco ranked just behind Sevy in errors (6) and caught an abysmal 17% of runners. Sisco’s inability to throw out runners isn’t surprising, considering he ranks 74th in Pop Time and 75th in Exchange Rate, among 78 catchers. Again, I’m going to keep the pitching staff in mind here.
As previously mentioned, Sisco didn’t get his first call-up until June, where he hit .267 with four home runs, five doubles, and had a 165 wRC+. The thoughts of “has Sisco arrived?” came rushing back, until the calendar flipped to July. He hit .196 in July and .200 in August (31 total games), racking up just four total home runs and one double. Sisco also saw a steady drop in his walk rate as the season went along, possibly in part due to trying to find his stroke again.
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What can we expect from Baltimore Orioles catchers in 2020?
We won’t see Adley Rutschman in 2020 and the Baltimore Orioles lack any notable catching prospects in the upper minors who could fight their way onto the active roster, so we’re going to see the same duo of Severino and Sisco for much of 2020.
Fangraphs’ ZiPS projections have the catching unit finishing the year with a 0.7 fWAR, a slight increase from their combined -0.2 fWAR last season. If Severino’s defense improves behind the plate and he can maintain his offensive production, approaching 1.0 fWAR as a team isn’t out of the question.
The biggest questions will center around Chance Sisco. A reliable option behind Rutschman will still be necessary and both Severino and Sisco are young enough to take that spot and stick around for a few more years. But can Sisco show consistency at the plate?
Sisco will never develop into a serviceable defensive catcher, but his offensive potential is much higher than Severino’s and his history of getting on base can be a valuable trait. It all comes down to consistency.
My best educated guess is that Severino gets the majority of the playing time, putting up largely similar numbers to what he produced in 2019. Sisco, on the other hand, continues to bounce between Triple-A and the big leagues, struggling to find that consistency at the plate in the majors.
We know Rutschman is the future, but what about 2020? What do you hope to see from this unit or any particular player?