To Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, the struggles his catchers have endured in 2021 are not much different than the growing pains that have occurred around the roster during his three-season tenure.
Pedro Severino, 27, and Chance Sisco, 26, have both gotten regular opportunities in the major leagues since 2018, but Hyde, a former catcher himself, said the duo — which since the midpoint of the abbreviated 2020 season has made up the sport’s worst catching unit on both sides of the ball — has “a long way to go” in their development.
“I think that we have two catchers that are still learning and early still in the development stages,” Hyde said. “I think catching takes a while to develop. I think they’re still learning some nuances of the game behind the plate from on the field, navigating a pitcher through the lineup, helping out during big innings. I still think there’s a lot of growing and learning that we’re doing with both guys behind the plate.”
While Hyde preached about their development, it’s clear neither is the Orioles’ future at the position. Sunday with Double-A, 2019 No. 1 overall pick Adley Rutschman hit a three-run home run in both halves of a doubleheader, one from each side of the plate. He’s played only 59 games in his professional career, though, and there’s little reason for the Orioles to begin his service time clock when they’re on a 13-game losing streak and have the worst record in baseball.
But it wasn’t all that long ago that both Severino and Sisco looked as if they might have a part to play in Baltimore’s future. After the Orioles’ 30th game of last year’s 60-game season Aug. 26, Severino ranked first in OPS among all catchers with at least 60 plate appearances. Sisco was next behind him. But since, in about half a typical season’s worth of games, they rank among the least productive backstops in the game.
Entering Sunday, a day in which Severino went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts as Baltimore lost for the 20th time in 22 games, Sisco has the second lowest OPS among the almost 50 catchers who have come to the plate at least 100 times in that span, while Severino’s OPS is eighth worst. The Orioles have received minus-1.8 wins above replacement from their catchers in that stretch, according to FanGraphs; that’s not only the worst for any catching unit in the sport, but also the second worst among any position group, ahead of only the Texas Rangers’ left fielders.
“I think when Sevy’s using the right-center-field gap and stays on the baseball, for me, that’s when his power comes into play, and he’s shown that he can do that over the last few years,” Hyde said. “He just kind of goes away from that approach sometimes and gets a little bit anxious.
“For me, it’s about aggressiveness with Chance Sisco. He’s always had good pitch selection, but now, they’re really attacking him in the strike zone, and now, he’s just got to be a little bit more aggressive, kind of let it go a little bit.”
But their struggles have not been limited to offense. Over the past two seasons, no team is close to the Orioles at the bottom of FanGraph’s rankings for overall defensive performance and pitch-framing among catching units. Among catchers who have caught at least 100 innings in those years, Sisco and Severino have recorded the two worst pitch-framing metrics, which recognize a catcher’s ability to steal borderline pitches as extra strikes for their pitchers.
They’ve been more prone to surrendering extra bases. A year after leading the league in combined wild pitches and passed balls, the Orioles’ 2021 total was tied for third entering Sunday. One of them came on a curveball that skipped under Severino in John Means’ no-hitter, keeping him from a perfect game as the runner reached on the dropped third strike.
Of course, part of those measures fall on the inexperienced pitchers Severino and Sisco are working with. Hyde said both sides of that battery “have a long way to go.”
“I do think pitching and catching goes hand in hand a lot of times,” Hyde said. “I think our catchers do a nice job from a pregame standpoint. I think the work they do prior to the game is fantastic. We’ve let a few too many balls get by us, especially here as of late. That’s just something we’re continuing to try to get better at. I think that when a pitching-catching relationship is strong and guys are in tune, then that definitely matters. We still have a long way to go on the mound, behind the plate. We’re continuing to try to get better, and hopefully, we will here coming up.”
Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said last week the Orioles are monitoring how their Triple-A catchers are performing. While Austin Wynns (1.011 OPS), Taylor Davis (.800) and Brett Cumberland (.799) are all batting well, none of them are on the 40-man roster, and the Orioles already are nearing the return of reliever Hunter Harvey from the 60-day injured list, which will require a 40-man opening.
Unless the Orioles elect to make a move, the major league jobs will remain Severino and Sisco’s as they try to recapture 2020′s early-season success.
What’s to come?
The Orioles get the gift of turning a calendar page, with Camden Yards’ capacity restrictions being lifted along with it. They’ll begin June amid a series with a Twins team that matched them for the league’s worst record before sweeping them in Minneapolis.
After their first scheduled day off in more than two weeks, they’ll host the Cleveland Indians, who lost consecutive games 13-0 the last time they visited Camden Yards in June 2019. The Orioles entered those shutouts on a 1-13 skid.
What was good?
The best news the Orioles got this week was that X-rays and other tests on Trey Mancini’s right elbow came back negative for any breaks after he was hit by a 95 mph fastball there in Thursday’s first inning. Mancini came out of the game with only a bruise and missed both games of Saturday’s doubleheader as he dealt with the soreness, but he returned Sunday, feeling “good enough” to play, as he told Hyde.
Losing 14 games in a row and 21 of 23 is hard to stomach. It would be even worse if this stretch included losing Mancini for an extended amount of time.
As the Orioles slumped to the finish line in 2020, César Valdez ascending to the back of their bullpen was a tremendous story. The then-35-year-old had two previous major league stints, in 2010 and 2017, and he returned with Baltimore as the wielder of a freakishly dominant changeup that Hyde dubbed “the dead fish.”
It’s been mostly dead of late. In both of his appearances entering Monday, Valdez got only one out while giving up three earned runs. After beginning the year as the Orioles’ closer and putting up a 1.23 ERA in 13 games, he’s given up nine runs in four innings over his past six outings as opposing batters have hit .556.
Assistant pitching coach Darren Holmes said he and Valdez have talked about using his fastball more going forward, making it so hitters can’t sit on the dead fish.
“There are definitely some things we are going to do to get him on track,” Holmes said.
On the farm
On Saturday, the Orioles promoted infielder Joey Ortiz from High-A Aberdeen to Double-A Bowie, joining Rutschman as the only members of Baltimore’s 2019 draft class to reach that level before seventh-round pick Johnny Rizer came along the next day.
Latest Baltimore Orioles
A fourth-round pick out of New Mexico State, Ortiz hit .289/.382/.434 for the IronBirds while mostly playing shortstop with some work at second and third. His promotion also opened the door for Jordan Westburg, Baltimore’s No. 11 prospect according to Baseball America, to join Aberdeen as the Orioles continue to be aggressive in moving up their prospects after 2020′s lost minor league season.