Caleb Joseph’s Bounce-Back 2017 Looks More Like a Breakout Year
After a horrible 2016 season, Caleb Joseph hasn’t just returned to the player he was in 2014 and 2015.
He’s been one of the best catchers in baseball so far this season.
Last season was supposed to be the season catcher Caleb Joseph proved he could be an everyday catcher.
It was likely Matt Wieters’ last season in Baltimore. Joseph was a very strong defensive catcher in both 2014 and 2015 (more on this later), and his offense improved in 2015 as he saw more playing time, increasing his games played from 82 to 100. In both seasons, Joseph posted a 1.9 WARP – Baseball Prospectus’ wins-above-replacement model, which includes catcher framing data.
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In 2016, though, Joseph saw his playing time reduced by about one or two games a week, as Wieters was healthy and the primary catcher. He caught 10 games in April and 13 games in May. At first he wasn’t hitting for power, something he had flashed in the minors and in 2015, when he posted a slightly above average .159 isolated power, especially for a catcher. Then he just wasn’t hitting at all.
Then he went on the disabled list for an injury no one wants to read about.
He came back in July, and his swing continued to produce anemic results. He played 12 games in July, only five games in August, as he was sent down to Triple-A, and nine in September. He ended the season with an abysmal .174/.216/.197 slash line in 141 plate appearances.
To add insult to injury, literally and figuratively, Joseph ended the season with a record that no one wants. He went the entire season without an RBI. Even though it’s generally known that RBI is a bad statistic, it was still unprecedented and unlucky.
The Orioles decided to keep Joseph for the 2017 season, likely because of his defensive capabilities and Wieters’ departure to the Washington Nationals, and split him with Welington Castillo, who could be traded before the deadline.
Entering Sunday, Joseph was enjoying the best offensive success of his career. He had a .931 OPS since May 8, and for the season, he owns a .300/.337/.456 slash line in 170 plate appearances to go along with a 110 wRC+, 11th best for catchers with more than 150 plate appearances. And he has more than zero RBI.
Even though the 31 year old’s hitting is vastly improved, his defense is better than it’s ever been, too.
Both Joseph and Castillo have been tasked with seemingly the impossible: making Orioles pitchers look good.
The staff is in the bottom three in all of baseball in ERA, fielding independent pitching and Fangraphs’ WAR. The team’s starting pitching has been even more disastrous, including an infamously bad 20-game stretch.
When throwing to Joseph, though, the staff hasn’t been horrible. Orioles pitchers have a 4.39 ERA when throwing to Joseph, which is just barely higher than the American League’s average ERA of 4.35. Contrastingly, Baltimore hurlers have pitched to a disastrous 5.87 ERA when throwing to Castillo.
This could just be randomization due to a small sample size, but it could also be a representation of Joseph’s pitch-calling and handling of the pitching staff.
As a pitch-framer, blocker and thrower, Joseph isn’t just far better than Castillo, he’s been one of the best in baseball.
Using Baseball Prospectus’ fielding runs above average, Joseph had the seventh best mark in his rookie season, despite catching far less than those ahead of him. In 2015, he was 11th, and in 2016 he was still somehow 13th, despite only catching in 49 games.
So far in 2017 – a season where catchers blame their pitchers for being too slow to home plate and for not giving enough frameable chances – Joseph is the best defender he’s ever been despite the ineptitude of his pitchers.
Joseph ranks third in FRAA this season, behind other notable defensive studs Yasmani Grandal and Tyler Flowers, despite playing less than both catchers. He’s fourth in framing runs and first in blocking runs. His impressive overall defensive numbers are even more impressive considering he’s having his worst throwing season of his career, as his caught stealing percentage is 14 percent lower than his average in his first three seasons.
Joseph’s 2.1 WARP is sixth among MLB catchers and second in the American League, behind only Gary Sanchez, who has more than 100 plate appearances than Joseph, and his 2.26 WARP. When adjusted for playing time, the only catchers more valuable on a per-game basis than Joseph this season are J.T. Realmuto and Flowers. Better than Wilson Contreras, Grandal and Buster Posey.
Even though Joseph’s success offensively so far could be due to a small sample size, as he is posting a typically lucky .389 BABIP, his defensive improvement thus far is much more reliable, considering he’s shown success in the past and the sample size is significantly larger.
From a fan perspective, though, defensive metrics are difficult to see on the field, especially with catchers. It’s easier to see that Manny Machado is good at playing third base than it is to tell Joseph is at catching.
Here’s an example from yesterday’s game that may have gone unnoticed.
Zach Britton entered the game against the Houston Astros in his first save opportunity since he injured his forearm in mid-April.
The former All-Star closer, who had one of the best seasons a reliever can possibly have in 2016, hadn’t quite been himself this season. In his previous appearance on Thursday, Britton allowed two runs in an inning against Texas.
Nevertheless, manager Buck Showalter ran Britton out for the ninth in a two-run game Sunday in what seemed like a must-win game for the Orioles, who have been in trade deadline purgatory over the last week, bouncing back and forth on the seesaw between buyers and sellers.
Britton looked shaky on his first three pitches, all balls, none of which were all that close. He looked like someone who was one save away from the American League consecutive saves streak; or like someone who hadn’t pitched in a save situation for three months; or like someone who knew the previous two facts and that he was pitching to one of the best – if not the best – lineup in the MLB.
Then he threw another ball, which sent Yuli Gurriel to first base, bringing the tying run to the plate. Except it didn’t.
Because Caleb Joseph made it a strike.
Britton threw another borderline pitch, which Joseph kept as a strike.
From then on, Britton was Britton-esque and the Orioles won and saved the team from becoming sellers for at least one more day. If Britton had walked Gurriel like it should have been called, the ninth inning could have gone much differently had it not been for Joseph’s pitch framing.