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New body, new mindset, new Chance: Orioles catcher Sisco the early breakout star of spring

Orioles catcher Chance Sisco talks about having confidence at the plate and being relax. (Baltimore Sun video)

SARASOTA, FLA. — Chance Sisco, the one-time can't-miss prospect, has actually become hard to miss. That wasn't always the case with the 24-year-old backstop as he tried to grow last year from being the Orioles' catcher of the future to the catcher of the present.

He's carrying a stronger frame from his offseason training in Sarasota, and using that to muscle up home runs in the first week of Grapefruit League games. He's drawing a crowd around his locker, once reserved for starting catchers Matt Wieters and Caleb Joseph but now his.

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And unlike last year, when he struggled to hold down a major league job and endured the worst season of his young baseball career, he's not slinking back and blending in with the scenery as the day's work bustles on around him.

All that has led to, through at least one week, the breakout player in Orioles camp, one who is on the ever-expanding list of players who say they feel more comfortable learning and growing now than ever before. Sisco wanted to grow into the catcher's role off the field anyway, and manager Brandon Hyde said "pumping confidence into him" has been his objective all spring.

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Orioles catcher Chance Sisco hit two homers and drove in five runs in a 3-for-3 performance against the Boston Red Sox.

"Everyone wants to be established, but just having a better relationship with the guys, spending more time with them, it definitely helps a lot, to be able to get on the same page and just be in that type of fun, exciting environment," Sisco said. "I'm just being a little more open with the guys, talking a little more. Obviously, I'm quiet, but having that time under the belt gives you a little more confidence and more comfort being around all the other guys."

"Chance has got a ton of ability," Hyde said. "He's got a chance to be a really good catcher. He's got a chance to be able to swing the bat from the left side, behind the plate. I just want him to play with confidence and be the leader on the field, and have it be OK for him to show personality. That's really hard to do as a young player. But I think with him ... I want him to know that we have confidence in him."

Sisco, selected in the second round of the 2013 draft as a new catcher with gap power and an advanced plate approach, did nothing but hit once he joined the Orioles' system. He batted .363 the summer he was drafted, .340 at Low-A Delmarva in 2014, and .297 between High-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie in 2015.

After hitting .320 in a full season at Bowie in 2016 and being named the organization's top prospect by Baseball America, his .267 average at Triple-A Norfolk earned him a September call-up in 2017, setting the stage for him to join the major league equation full-time in 2018.

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His struggles to balance everything that comes with being a major league catcher played out in full view, and clearly weighed on Sisco. He was batting .218 with a .668 OPS when he was sent down to Norfolk on June 17, and after throwing out nine of the first 18 attempted base-stealers he faced, 17 of the next 18 were successful. He returned 11 days later, only to be sent back down at the All-Star break and wasn’t seen again until September.

Manny Machado dissed the Orioles and Baltimore in a recent Sports Illustrated interview, which should not surprise anyone.

Even when he was having sustained success in the minors, Sisco was known to carry a bad at-bat to defense behind the plate. It'd be an easy explanation to say that compounded over the course of the season, but Sisco wouldn't go there.

"It's definitely a tough job, but we know that going into it," Sisco said. "We know that catching has more responsibility really than any other position, and it's just something to keep working on and keep trying to master both sides of it. ... It's all tough. It's the big leagues. There's not really one toughest job. Catching is tough. Hitting is tough. It's the highest level of baseball."

Those who have known him the longest said the struggles weighed on Sisco in a way they could on anybody.

"Last year was just hard because it was just negative, and he just reflected it on the field, too," fellow catcher Austin Wynns said. “He's a better player than that."

"It's different when you come to the big leagues," said pitcher Mike Wright Jr., who trained with Sisco this winter in Sarasota. "There's a lot of expectations that you didn't have anywhere else. There's a lot of pressures to the game, and it just takes a little bit of adjusting. But I think he's jumped over that hurdle and we're going to see a different player this year."

The on-field evidence is clear early. Sisco muscled four home runs in his first eight spring at-bats, barreling the ball in a way he didn't very often last season. His offseason diagnosis was his landing foot was ending up in a different spot in 2018 than it was when he had success earlier in his career. But that's only a small piece of the puzzle, and the idea of comfort came up often as the reason.

As a high school draftee who was put on the fast track to the majors, he's never been age-appropriate for his level. That age difference was even more pronounced in the majors, and though he showed an ability to manage that in the minors, being the young, quiet, touted catcher didn't translate in the Orioles clubhouse.

"He is naturally a little bit more of a reserved guy, and that's him," pitcher David Hess said. "Everybody's got their personality traits, and I think that a lot of times, that can be mistaken as not wanting to lead or anything like that. That's not at all the case with Chance.

"He really wants to see himself do well, the team do well, he wants his pitchers to do well, he's catching. He's just a guy that really, he's a great team guy, great team player, and I think that's why last year it was tough to see him going through all that, because he is a guy that cares so much about how he's doing for his team, and not even on a personal front."

Now, instead of letting that eat at him, Sisco is showing it. Hyde said an early focus has been on how and when for Sisco to be more vocal on the field. While there are philosophies he and major league field coordinator and catching instructor Tim Cossins want to instill in everyone, it's an opportunity for Sisco to be himself.

Sisco said their energy sets the tone for the entire day, with Cossins "yelling and having fun out there" in the catchers' early-morning batting cage sessions. They want him to follow suit, and Sisco said they're giving him the confidence to do so.

Checking in with Orioles top prospects Yusniel Diaz, Ryan Mountcastle, Hunter Harvey, Austin Hays, and more through the first four games of the Grapefruit League schedule.

"Everybody has got their own personality, but ... I just want him to come out and not be timid, and I want him to throw behind runners, and I want him to be aggressive and make mistakes physically here by being aggressive," Hyde said. "That's pretty much the mindset of all of our guys. I don't want anybody to feel bottled up."

No one thinks Sisco is holding onto things anymore — not that there’s much negative there to grab.

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"He's loose," Wynns said. "I want to say everyone's confident in here. He's confident, and confidence is a big key. He's himself. He's not walking on eggshells."

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"I just think his confidence is through the roof," right-hander Jimmy Yacabonis said. "He's not really worried about anything. I think he's carefree. He's out there playing the game, not worried about impressing somebody, not worried about doing the right thing. He's just out there playing the game. And if you go out there and play the game and trust your instincts, you're going to do the right thing. You're going to hit well. You're going to play well."

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