CHICAGO — In a different version of this Orioles season, where the losses weren't mounting and the team wasn't faced with a host of challenges both short- and long-term, the progress of rookie Chance Sisco at catcher would be occurring under a far brighter spotlight.
A rookie catcher whose bat was considered far more advanced than his defense at the time of his debut in September, Sisco has taken over the left-handed-hitting half of the Orioles' backstop platoons with Caleb Joseph and, now, Andrew Susac. And he’s had to acclimate to life in the majors under far different circumstances than if he were with a contending club, getting plenty of time to learn on the way.
"It's fun to watch him grow," manager Buck Showalter said. "Try to keep in mind this guy was a shortstop in high school and barely started catching when we signed him. He's come a long way in a short period of time. What is he, a college senior? Fifth-year senior? I don't know what it would amount to. We try to keep that in mind."
For a player who was ranked the organization's top prospect in Baseball America going into last season and was No. 3 entering this season, there's been little fanfare about what Sisco, 23, has done overall. But there's also been little panic. Showalter on Wednesday casually mentioned a conversation with Sisco about how he was being pitched and some of the struggles he was having at the plate, but there was no harsh implication behind it.
The Orioles view it as a natural progression, and — without prompting — the veteran manager who has at times had a very high defensive standard brought up how impressed he was with Sisco behind the plate in Tuesday's 3-2 loss.
"Chance caught real well last night," Showalter said. "He's had two or three games here — he has really been catching well. I don't think people sometimes realize the number of balls he blocked last night — tough blocks, really short out of the [dirt]."
That, he said, along with his game-calling was never really considered a debit to his overall skill set. However, his arm was.
Though Sisco cops to having no expectations for how this season would go or how he would perform once he made the club out of spring training, he's proud of how he's handled the running game this season. Through Tuesday's game, he'd thrown out nine of 20 would-be base stealers. The Orioles touted his 41 percent caught stealing rate in the second half of last year at Triple-A Norfolk as an indication of improvement, and this year's 45 percent clip shows the statistical success is carrying over.
"For myself, controlling the running game has been better than — not better than my expectations — but better than what I've done, obviously, in the past," Sisco said. "I think that's contributed to by the work I put in in the spring and the help I've had from Caleb, [bench coach John Russell] and [minor league instructor] Donnie Werner coming together a little bit. That would be the one thing you could point out."
While Sisco's average pop time of 2.08 seconds to second base is slowest among catchers with at least 10 attempts there, according to MLB Statcast data from BaseballSavant.com, he's been able to keep control of base runners for the most part. He's being challenged because of what's perceived as subpar arm strength — a pop time below 2.00 is considered the standard — but is benefiting from quick deliveries by his pitchers and improved footwork from himself.
"Footwork has been a lot more consistent than it has been in the past," Sisco said. "That's really the biggest thing for me right now. ... Even in spring, ... I said that I was happy with the throws that I made in spring, even though I only threw one guy out. I was happy with what happened then, so to get the results now is nice."
Said Showalter: "His throwing is only going to get better. It's been good. That was one of the challenges."
Sisco has also been behind the plate for some of the team's best outings of the season, including Kevin Gausman's nine scoreless innings in Oakland and Gausman's career-high 10 strikeouts Tuesday. Dylan Bundy has also pitched well to him on occasion. That those two are potential rotation cornerstones going forward bodes well for Sisco.
At the plate, Sisco entered Wednesday batting .222/.308/.370 with a pair of home runs and six doubles in 32 games, striking out in 38.5 percent of his plate appearances. He struggled early in 2017 at Triple-A Norfolk before bringing himself up to a .267 average with a .736 OPS, and he was a career .311/.390/.426 minor league hitter when the Orioles made him a Sept. 1 call-up last year.
His struggles this year come in a timeshare that he's never really had to deal with in his professional career, but he said there's far more to it than that.
"It's always tough," Sisco said. "What we're doing here is we're facing the best guys in the world, so it's going to be tough in that aspect, but that's not really something I focus on. More just controlling what I can control."
Showalter said the meeting Wednesday was meant to spotlight things Sisco could change now that there's a major league scouting report out on him.
"He's seeing some really good pitching," Showalter said. "I had a little talk with him today, just talking through a few things, trying to slow it down a little bit. We all know he's a better hitter than he's shown, and we're trying to make some adjustments to some of the things that are going on to him up here."
Otherwise, the soft-spoken Sisco is taking his rookie year in stride.
"I didn't know really what to expect," Sisco said. "I said that at the beginning of the year, I didn't know what to expect. I don't know — I had no expectations on stuff like that. Just coming to play every day and when I'm in there, I try to get these pitchers through the game as easy and quick as possible and try to have productive at-bats."