For someone who has spent his life in Ohio and West Virginia, I have a surprising number of friends who are fans of the Baltimore Orioles. Those friends have spent a large portion of their baseball-attentive lives waiting for the team’s catcher of the future. Toward the end of the 2000s, that seemed to be Matt Wieters, the fifth overall pick in the 2007 Draft and Baseball Prospectus’ No. 1 prospect in baseball before he debuted in 2009. After Wieters briefly lived up to his lofty expectations in 2011-12, fans waited for him to reach those heights again. Now, with the Orioles in the middle of another rebuilding cycle, the future of the organization rests on the shoulders of another catcher, Adley Rutschman, the first overall pick in 2019 and the No. 5 prospect in the game, according to Eric Longenhagen’s rankings.
Those are the most high-profile examples, but another top catching prospect existed between those two, and is entering an important season in his big league development. It wasn’t long ago that Chance Sisco, a second-round pick by the organization in 2013, was rising quickly through the system and turning into one of the best catching prospects in the game. Before the 2017 season, he was the top prospect in the organization and a consensus Top 100 prospect around baseball. That year, he was usually the only Orioles player ranked in the Top 100, a signal of how much he stood out in an otherwise listless farm system. That would be an acceptable development if the big league roster were teeming with youth and recently-graduated prospects, but instead, the club was anchored by aging veterans such as Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, Adam Jones, and J.J. Hardy, and on the cusp of its first losing season in six years. It was time for the team to start thinking about its future, and that future started with Sisco.
Just three years later, Sisco, now 25, doesn’t inspire the same buzz he once did. Part of that is slow development at the upper levels, which is pretty typical for catchers. Last season was Sisco’s third in a row getting major league experience, but he’s still yet to reach 200 plate appearances in a season at the big league level, with the Orioles shuttling him back and forth from Triple-A. His first extended look at the majors in 2018 was a rough one — in 184 plate appearances, he hit just .181/.288/.269, running a 58 wRC+ and striking out almost 36% of the time. Combined with 38 games in Norfolk that were merely okay, it was the worst season of Sisco’s professional career.
His reputation dinged a bit, he started 2019 back in Triple-A, but this time, he raked. With a rebound in his hit tool and walk numbers and a bit of help from the rabbit ball, Sisco hit .292/.388/530 in 196 PAs, good for a 134 wRC+. After never surpassing nine homers in any given calendar year as a pro, he hit 10 dingers in his first 45 games of 2019, posting a .238 ISO that was more than 100 points better than any other figure he’d posted at any level.
He kept up that power stroke after getting promoted, if only temporarily. He socked eight more homers in 59 games in the majors, posting a .186 ISO. Six of those homers, however, came in his first 19 games, with just two in the following 40. While his average remained low, he boosted his walk rate from 7.1% to 11.1%, and cut his K-rate from 35.9% to 30.8%. In 198 PAs, his wRC+ was 96, making him about a league-average bat as a 24-year-old catcher.
The other reason for the diminished buzz around Sisco is the arrival of Rutschman, the 22-year-old switch hitter who is the most well-rounded catching prospect the game has seen in well over a decade. From Longenhagen’s report of him in his Top 100 rankings:
Rutschman is the total package, a physical monster who also has superlative baseball acumen and leadership qualities. From his sophomore season onward (and arguably starting in the fall before that) Rutschman went wire-to-wire as the top draft prospect in his class, a complete player and the best draft prospect in half a decade. His entire profile is ideal. It’s rare for ambidextrous swingers to have polished swings from both sides of the plate, even more so to have two nearly identical, rhythmic swings that produce power.
It’s more atypical still for that type of hitter to be a great defender at a premium position. Rutschman has a pickpocket’s sleight of hand and absolutely cons umpires into calling strikes on the edge of the zone.
Unlike many catchers, Rutschman actually has the skillset to be a fast mover through the Orioles’ system. There’s probably a case to be made that he’s advanced enough to have a chance to crack the big league roster this season, similar to the way Buster Posey did in the year after he was drafted by the San Francisco Giants. But because the Orioles have no chance at competing in 2020, the team is certain to be in no rush to start Rutschman’s service clock before they absolutely have to. That means Sisco should have at least one more full season to prove he’s a starting-caliber catcher in the long-term before the next youngster starts beating down the door.
Can he do it? Well, fortunately for him, history tells us he may be reaching the right age at the right time. Some of the most highly-regarded catchers in the game made their jumps in their age-25 season, which is the age Sisco turned just two weeks ago:
The Age-25 Jump
That’s a pretty good group of catchers, none of whom had made any kind of mark in the majors before the season in which they turned 25. Then, something clicked. That’s an encouraging sign for someone like Sisco who, like the backstops above, has a long track record of success in the minors, but has also already shown some ability to translate his offensive skills to the big league level.
Still, for Sisco to live up to his prospect hype, he knows he’ll need to do more, and jumps like those his peers have made don’t just happen on their own. The Baltimore Sun’s Jon Meoli wrote about how Sisco spent the offseason working with renowned hitting guru Craig Wallenbrock, whose teachings have been popularized by the success of pupils such as J.D. Martinez and Chris Taylor. From Meoli:
The program they designed was centered on the direction and timing of Sisco’s left-handed swing. The work with Wallenbrock, Sisco said, focused on loading his weight properly and shifting the landing spot for his front foot before stating his swing.
“If I can land in the right spot and stay connected throughout the load, then I’ll be able to be a lot more consistent with delivering the barrel and not have those rollovers and flares, obviously, and the swings and misses as much,” Sisco said.
Sisco barreled up 10.4% of his batted balls in 2019, more than double his rate from the previous year and well above league average. He also cut his groundball rate substantially, from 48.9% to 39.6%, along with his whiff rate, from 16.1% to 11.8%. His average exit velocity was also well within the top half of baseball. In other words, he was already on the right track toward improving some of those things he worked on with Wallenbrock, which should be a good sign for him making more progress in 2020.
Most organizations never need to worry about finding enough work for two starter-worthy catchers, since the field of legitimately good backstops is so thin. But that’s a problem Sisco would like to present Baltimore with in the near-future. It won’t be easy — he’s already contending with Pedro Severino, a 26-year-old waiver claim from Washington last winter who turned into a league-average bat over 96 games behind the plate in 2019, for the starting job this year. Fending off Rutschman’s rise will be more difficult. But Sisco was once a fast-riser himself for a reason. If 25 is the age in which he, like so many other catchers, begins to realize his potential, it would go a long way toward affirming his standing as a catcher of the future — even if that future isn’t in Baltimore.