BOWIE — Before a recent game, while teammates played cards at a table in the middle of the clubhouse and others snuck glances at the TV, Chance Sisco — the top hitting prospect in the Orioles organization — stuck behind the scenes, going about his pregame preparation.
Sisco is growing comfortable in Double-A Bowie, settling in to the point where he's able to go about his business without sticking out — the way he likes it. As the nonwaiver trade deadline came and went this month, the Orioles passed on trading Sisco, indicating that he can stay comfortable in Bowie for now, and perhaps that they plan to keep him around for a while.
The California high school catcher the Orioles drafted in the second round in 2013 now stands as the No. 1 prospect in the organization according to ESPN.com and No. 2 according to MLB.com, though nothing about him — from his understated behind-the-scenes pregame regimen to the final pitch he catches — is flashy.
He's just above-average height (6-foot-2) and average build (195 pounds). He makes few highlight plays — he has just two home runs this season for the Baysox, and hasn't hit more than six in a season in his professional career. And he plays catcher, perhaps the least flashy position on the field.
And then there's his demeanor. Those close to him struggle to put a finger on it. His high school coach, Ty De Trinidad, said he's "not eye-popping." Bowie manager Gary Kendall calls him "quiet."
"I remember having to get him to kind of speak up," said Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph, who worked with Sisco at major league spring training this year.
Those descriptors, especially on the field, hardly fit the model of an organization's No. 1 prospect, the kind that fans anoint as a future face of the franchise. But that's OK, because the Orioles don't need him to be the face of the franchise.
"You know what, I've seen a lot of players in the big leagues that weren't outspoken that went up there and waited their turn," Kendall said. "Years ago, the presence of a rookie in the clubhouse didn't say a whole lot of anything. You only spoke when you were spoken to."
Although the wallflower type, Sisco said he doesn't shy away from the spotlight.
"I'm extremely comfortable with it. You have to be," Sisco said. "You're playing professional baseball, you're always in the spotlight. Someone's always watching, doesn't matter where you're at. You get used to it. I'd say I'm extremely comfortable with it."
His demeanor doesn't begin to describe what makes him such an asset: his bat.
In his first year out of Santiago High School in Corona, Calif., Sisco hit .371 in 97 rookie-ball at-bats in the Gulf Coast League in 2013. He followed that by hitting .340 over a full season at Low-A Delmarva in 2014, winning the South Atlantic League batting title.
A .308 average over 263 at-bats at High-A Frederick last season earned him a promotion to Bowie in August. He hit just .257 in 20 games with Bowie in 2015, but this year he's off to another scorching start, hitting .319 as the everyday catcher and slowly drawing the attention of eyes across baseball.
"He thrives on competition," Kendall said. "I don't think he's a guy, he doesn't let 0-for-4s get in his way. He has a quick turnaround, and after a couple games where he feels he could have been better, he's a guy that will go out there and get big hits for us."
Now 21, Sisco has hit .300 at every level from the GCL to Double-A, except for the Arizona Fall League and a two-game stint at Short-A Aberdeen.
"To be able to do what he's done offensively is really special," Orioles director of player development Brian Graham said. "He's a left-handed hitter that puts good at-bats together. He understands the strike zone. He hits the ball all directions. It's an impressive approach to hitting by a young hitter."
Still, his contributions at the plate are unassuming. He has more games with three or more hits (six) than home runs (two) this season. And if you ask Kendall, Sisco prefers the former.
Like many left-handed hitters, he sometimes struggles against left-handed pitching, but has only had limited at-bats in such situations. His on-base numbers are strong, with his 12.5 percent walk rate this year the highest it has been since his first season in 2013. That's another contribution that sometimes flies under the radar. Before a recent Orioles game against the Colorado Rockies, in which the Rockies started newly called up and highly regarded outfielder David Dahl, Joseph compared Sisco to other more heralded prospects.
"[Sisco] may not catch your eye in the general evaluation of what a prospect should look like," Joseph said. "He probably doesn't look like [Dahl], but if you compared him to the catchers who are being evaluated, there's a lot to like there.
"Now, is it going to look sexy? No, but neither did I. The only thing that's keeping him from being on the front of Baseball America like [Matt] Wieters was is him hitting 30 homers. That's the only thing."
One perceived weakness Sisco has is on defense, though Graham said the Orioles plan on keeping him as a catcher for now, He became a catcher in his senior year of high school, the 2012-13 academic year, when he moved from shortstop to fill a need on his high school team. He played the position for one season before he started catching pro arms and 2 1/2 seasons before he started catching Double-A arms.
Naturally, the Orioles are optimistic for several reasons. His ability to throw out would-be base stealers has slowly improved, from 5-for-25 (20 percent) in the GCL to 25-for-96 (26 percent) this year. Kendall points out that while catchers at Sisco's age don't often gain a new level of arm strength all of a sudden, they can make more subtle improvements to their pop time by changing their footwork or release. Graham notes that a catcher's proficiency is increasingly determined by the pitcher at the big league level. And Joseph draws on his own experience of switching to catcher late in the game and learning to call pitches as he developed.
"You have to learn certain players and leagues, and it's a huge chess game," Joseph said. "I don't think anybody over the span of one or two years figures out the game of chess. It just depends maybe on the competition and playing. So you may think you figured it out if you're playing somebody of equal talent as you are. But if you play a world champion, you may find out, well, maybe I haven't improved as much as I thought. So it's kind of a trick question. You progress."
If Sisco stays at catcher, his path to the big leagues is complicated but promising. Matt Wieters, the current Orioles starter, is a free agent after this season. Joseph and Triple-A catchers Francisco Pena and Audry Perez are also in front of Sisco. But Graham hopes to see Sisco finish this season in Bowie, return to big league camp next spring and move to Triple-A Norfolk next season, with a possible call-up to the majors later next year if circumstances allow.
As a high school draft pick, Sisco has a long way to go to reach that day but also a long time to get there, and he knows his hitting so far has put him on the right track.
"I mean, being able to play in Double-A and the Eastern League, you feel like you're almost there," he said. "So to get that feeling of you're just one call away gives you something to look forward to, I guess. Something to work for."
The fact that the Orioles traded promising High-A Frederick catcher Jonah Heim to the Tampa Bay Rays for Steve Pearce shows the organization's confidence in Sisco. As shy as he appears to some, Sisco says he embraces the expectations.
"Who doesn't want to play in the big leagues and be a big role on an AL East team?" he said. "I mean, the Orioles gave me the chance in the first place, so I mean, to be able to come up and hopefully be the starting catcher in Baltimore one day, that's a dream come true."