Orioles catching prospect Chance Sisco's growth accelerating with early playing time

When top catching prospect Chance Sisco made the Orioles’ Opening Day roster — a decision that was a surprise to some because he was presumably taking a backup role behind starter Caleb Joseph — he didn’t know how much playing time he’d receive. But Sisco has quickly become a significant part of the club, sharing playing time behind the plate nearly equally with Joseph.

Sisco has started in seven of the Orioles’ first 16 games, including five starts in a nine-game stretch that included his first starts on back-to-back days.

“I didn’t really know what to expect, so I didn’t really have any expectations,” Sisco said before Saturday’s game in Boston. “I was coming in with an open mind, and whenever I saw my name on the lineup card, that’s what was going to happen that day. I’ve enjoyed my time so far. … [The playing time] is huge. There’s obviously nothing like game situations, so just being … out there as much as I can has helped me a lot. I’m just getting more comfortable with a lot of situations that have popped up. I’ve had a lot going on, so there’s nothing like the game [experience].”

A certain part of Sisco’s significant playing time has been by circumstance. His back-to-back starts came after Joseph had caught two extra-inning games over a three-day span in New York – one 12 innings and the other 14. But the 23-year-old has also earned his opportunities in the lineup with a strong bat and quickly improving acumen behind the plate.

“I’m real happy with it,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “I was talking to [catchers coach] John [Russell] about it in the dugout [Sunday]. You’re got to keep in mind it’s a big jump for him and every once in a while you forget how little experience he has at this level.”

Showalter believes Sisco is on a steady growth path as a catcher, a position he first took to as a high school senior before the Orioles selected him in the second round of the 2013 draft.

“He’s handled it well,” Showalter said. “He’s only going to get better and better. His blocking [has improved]. He and John have done a great job taking it to the level he needs to be. He’s throwing better. I’m happy with where he is. I think he’s going to end up reaching his potential, whatever that may be.”

Going into Tuesday night’s series opener in Detroit, Sisco is hitting .276/.344/.379 and his .723 OPS is the fourth best on the team among players with at least 30 plate appearances. His .748 OPS against right-handed pitching is also fourth on the club, and Showalter has already brought Sisco off the bench late in five games to face right-handed relievers.

It is a small sample size, but the Orioles predicted that Sisco’s bat would play at the major league level. He was a career .311 hitter in the minors and was 6-for-18 with two homers in 10 games last September as a late-season call-up.

The bigger question was how Sisco would handle regular playing time behind the plate — calling a game, blocking pitches in the dirt and controlling the running game — which was the main reason some expected him to open the season at Triple-A Norfolk.

Controlling the running game was the biggest concern, and the one facet of catching that Sisco appeared behind in during his September call-up, when he was 0-for-5 throwing out potential base stealers. Even though he threw out just one of 11 during the 2018 exhibition season, the focus was on improving his footwork to get his throws out quicker.

“Just refining the footwork, being more consistent with that, that’s been one of the bigger things,” Sisco said. “Obviously, the pitchers are helping me with quicker times to the plate and giving me the opportunity to get the ball out on its way. I think that’s the big thing I need to do, just get it on its way as quickly as possible. Once it’s in that area, we have [Jonathan Schoop] and Manny [Machado] up the middle and they can handle pretty much any throw we give them.”

This season, Sisco has thrown out three of six potential base stealers. He threw out 23 percent in 94 games at Norfolk last season.

“The constant work with the footwork, knowing where to put the feet [has been important],” Sisco said. “I was happy with the throws I did make during the spring. There wasn’t too many opportunities, but the throws I did make, I was happy with. Just transferring that over into the season and hoping to keep it going on.”

Joseph, who also had to prove himself as a thrower when he first came up in 2014, said Sisco is starting to do the same.

“They’re going to test him,” Joseph said. “I think every young catcher goes through that sort of rite of passage. … It’s the base of what really allows you to be consistent and successful because we’re not blessed with bazookas, so we need to be efficient in all of our movements and that starts with the footwork, but over time and experience, you get that comfortable feeling of knowing where that game speed and gear speed is. … It’s big for him as far as confidence and it’s big for us as a team. He’s gotten some big outs. I know when people were worried about my throwing, it was pretty nice to throw out a few guys early here and there. That’s a big confidence-booster.”

Along with that, the biggest transition for a young catcher is knowing the strengths and weaknesses of his pitching staff and using those to call a game.

“It’s gone pretty well so far,” Sisco said. “I’ve had some good things happen, and I think I’ve been playing pretty well and I’m just enjoying it right now, enjoying the time I have out there and the starts that I’ve had. But you’re still trying to focus on all the things we were focusing on during the spring, whether that’s at the plate hitting-wise or catching. Just trying to work with these guys, learn them as quick as possible. So far I think I’ve done pretty well. Obviously you want to keep the wins going, but I think they’ll come.”

Sisco’s pitchers’ ERA is 5.66, a number that ballooned in his most recent start, right-hander Alex Cobb’s first game with the Orioles. But Joseph, who has taken a hand in mentoring Sisco, said Sisco’s grasp of pitch-calling has improved quicker than he could have predicted.

“I think a lot of that has to do with understanding the pitchers we have and what they like to do and paying attention and watching,” Joseph said. “I struggled with the balance of what your gut says and all the information that’s provided. I think he’s doing a better job of that. You can’t always go to the book, but sometimes the book will reinforce your gut.”

Showalter’s been pleased, and there’s no reason to believe Sisco won’t continue to share the load with Joseph, who has hit just .097 through his first nine games. Sisco has enjoyed success and improvement at every minor league level he’s been at — all while being one of the youngest players at those levels — so there’s no reason to doubt he will make good on the top-prospect label the Orioles have given him.

“It’s all on the defensive side of it, getting the confidence of the pitchers, getting the self-confidence of calling the game, knowing the hitters,” Showalter said. “He spends a lot of time [preparing]. He’s got a good support group and all the information he needs. But he’s a smart guy. They learning curve shouldn’t be too long with him. He’s a very quiet, confident guy. I don’t want to start talking about who he reminds me of, but as he gets his feet on the ground, you’ll see him [grow]. I just want him to be himself. I don’t want him to start thinking, I’ve got to present this look and I’ve got to act like this in this situation. He’s got a strong backbone. You don’t do the things he’s done [without that].”

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