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While enduring struggles at the plate, Orioles' Caleb Joseph still contributing behind it

Jacoby Ellsbury of the New York Yankees, right, is tagged out at home plate by Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph in the first inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 4, 2016 in Baltimore.
Jacoby Ellsbury of the New York Yankees, right, is tagged out at home plate by Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph in the first inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 4, 2016 in Baltimore. (Patrick McDermott / Getty Images)

In times like these, Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph thinks back to the message delivered upon his arrival in the major leagues two years ago. As Joseph prepared for what would become a regular role behind the plate for the playoff-bound Orioles in 2014, manager Buck Showalter told him that defense should never go into a slump.

"It sounds simple and I couldn't believe I had never heard that before, but it's pretty true," Joseph said. "When you know you can impact the game defensively — because as a catcher, we have the opportunity to impact the game literally every pitch — it might not be with your bat some nights, but you can try your best to impact the game behind the plate if you can help the pitcher get a few more pitches here or there. You never know."

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That message is one Joseph, who continues to wait for his bat to come around this season, is keeping in mind. After an 0-for-3 in Thursday's matinee loss to the Seattle Mariners, Joseph's batting average was down to .204, and his .512 OPS was the lowest of his career by more than 100 points. After a career-high 11 home runs in 100 games last year, he entered Friday without one in 18 games this year.

Joseph's role was never going to be as big as his first two seasons with Matt Wieters back healthy and playing the bulk of the games. But he is compensating for the fact that nothing is falling in for him offensively by improving his pitchers' fortunes, stealing them strikes regularly.

Commonly, the practice is referred to as pitch-framing — the subtle act of manipulating a pitch into a strike, or when it goes the other way, turning strikes into balls. Joseph refers to it as presentation, and while it has been getting attention in analytics circles as one of many nuances of the game ripe for quantification, the Orioles' backup catcher has focused on it as long as he has had a catcher's mitt.

At the beginning, he thought it was just having soft hands. The preference was aesthetic for him — not so much a cut-and-dry skill as much as it was something that makes both the pitcher and catcher look good.

"Then as you progress and you get into professional ball, you realize they're actually trying to quantify that," Joseph said. "I've always felt that if you can just present the ball in a manner that showed where the pitch was, getting umpires a good look at where the true strikes were, you were liable to get more strikes that way. I don't like the words 'stealing strikes' necessarily. I like trying to get borderline pitches that are kind of like coin-flip pitches that are really one way or the other."

Whatever you call it, Joseph is one of the league's best at it. This season, Joseph went into the weekend seventh in the league by one measure, providing 4.1 runs above average because of his framing, according to StatCorner. The site uses two primary statistics — strikes called on balls outside of the strike zone, and balls called inside the strike zone — and values every strike at a fraction of a run to represent the average value of getting or not getting the pitch called.

Joseph ranked eighth in the league in the stat known as zBall, which is the percentage of pitches in the strike zone called balls, at 10.9 percent. The league average is around 14 percent. He was tied for ninth in oStrike, which measures the opposite, with 9.5 percent of pitches outside the zone called strikes.

As a backup, Joseph has the fewest pitches caught of anyone in the top 10, but still went into Friday having gained 31 calls this season, an average of 1.78 per game. Only three catchers have a higher rate.

Last year's leader in RAA was Francisco Cervelli of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team that has long prioritized catchers with these receiving skills. Orioles swingman Vance Worley was there last season, and sees similar traits in both of the Orioles catchers.

They might not rate as highly as Cervelli — despite his big target, Matt Wieters does not get credit for stealing many strikes — but Worley said there's more to it than just yanking the ball back into the strike zone.

Wieters and Joseph are helped by their familiarity with the staff, most of it borne of years of work together.

"It's up to the catcher to know what each guy's stuff is going to do, and how can he set it up?" Worley said. "If it's down, is he really going to work underneath it? If it's supposed to come back over the plate this way, is he going to go get it or bring it back over or be one of those guys who just catches it where it's at?

"The pitcher has to be able to fool the hitter as much as the catcher has to fool the umpire behind him on where that pitch is at."

That Joseph is able to provide value behind the plate takes some of the sting out of an uncharacteristically slow start for him. His minus-0.2 wins above replacement through 18 games would be much worse given his batting line were it not for what he's able to do behind the plate. In more traditional catching stats, Joseph is faring well, too. He went into the series against the Los Angeles Angels right at the league average in throwing out base stealers (30 percent), bogged down sometimes by the pitchers he's catching like the slow-to-the-plate Ubaldo Jimenez.

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Everyone loves and measures hitting, but Joseph enjoys the hidden aspect enough to keep his spirits up during his slump.

"Some people might not understand," he said. "While it's either inside or outside of the zone, numerous times every game you have those borderline pitches. And the art of trying to convince the umpire one way or the other, it's kind of the fun part about it."

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