There was a time when you could find scouts who felt that Chance Sisco would never improve enough on defense to ever catch an inning in the major leagues. You don’t hear that talk anymore - and he did, in fact, catch in the majors after a call-up last September.
Now the talk more centers on just how much has Sisco improved as a pro on defense, how well will he do throwing out runners and how ready he is for a big league opportunity.
In 2018, his chance could truly arrive, no pun intended.
The Sisco kid has not only worked hard on his defense, but shown plenty of patience with reporters who have questioned him on it since the day the Orioles made him the 61st overall pick in the 2013 draft.
By Sisco’s standards, his batting average was on the low side for Triple-A Norfolk in 2017. He hit .267/.340/.395 for the Tides in 97 games, with 23 doubles, a career-high seven homers and 47 RBIs. His strikeout rate did increase from 17.3 percent at Double-A Bowie in 2016 to 25.5 percent with Norfolk.
But the Orioles’ 2016 minor league Player of the Year may be slowly developing some pop. He hit three homers in his last 28 at-bats with the Tides and then hit two big league homers in his first nine plate appearances with the Orioles. He connected off the Yankees’ Giovanny Gallegas and the Rays’ Jake Faria.
After his call-up, Sisco didn’t initially see much playing time, but there was still plenty to gain and learn.
“Just learning from the guys,” Sisco said during a September interview. “Learning their routines. Watching video. Being around them in the video room and the advance meetings. Honestly, just being a sponge. Super cliché but it definitely helps being around everyone in the clubhouse and in the dugout during the games.”
I asked Sisco what specific area of his defense made the biggest stride during the 2017 year. Yep, yet another question about defense. Few players have answered as many.
“Working with the pitching staff and throwing,” he said. “I think the second half of the season I threw out quite a good number of runners. I don’t know the percent that it was, but when I look back on it, I feel very good about that. I think I just kept working, going with the process and something clicked that helped me with throwing. That helped my confidence. One of the main things is being confident behind the plate and I gained that in the second half at Norfolk and built on that.”
Sisco’s arm strength is in the average range, so aspects of his game like footwork and the smooth transfer of the ball to his throwing hand will always be important to gain those extra fractions of a second to nail attempting basestealers.
He threw out 22.6 percent with the Tides, but made big gains in the second half when that percentage was 36.8. At the Winter Meetings last month, I asked Jim Callis of MLBPipeline.com if Sisco is now major league-ready on defense.
“Well, maybe,” Callis said. “I don’t think he’s ever going to be an above-average defensive catcher. But that is still an improvement from a time when there were doubts he could even become an adequate catcher. I think you are looking now where he is somewhere from adequate to fringy to average.
“It all kind of depends of what you desire from the catching position. If the Orioles want a guy that is going to be a presence behind the plate, then I think you need to give him more time in Triple-A. If you are willing to trade defense for offense, he is one of the better hitting catchers in the minor leagues. Then I think he’s ready.”
Sisco has a .311 career minor league batting average. Heading into last season, he was the Orioles’ No. 1 prospect with a career batting line of .323/.402/.434 on the farm. Last winter, he was ranked No. 57 on Baseball America’s top 100 list and he figures to remain a top 100 prospect when various lists come out later this winter. He is still prospect eligible and still qualifies for major league rookie status after just 22 plate appearances in September.
Catcher Austin Wynns was added to the Orioles’ 40-man roster in November and is noted for his strong defense. If the O’s want the best possible defender backing up Caleb Joseph, Wynns could have a shot to emerge on the roster on opening day.
But after years as one of the club’s top prospects and having played his way through the Triple-A level, it seems the time for Sisco in Baltimore may be at hand.
Getting a taste of the big leagues tends to make one want to stick around. Sisco is no different. He looks back on a solid 2017 season, one that got him here for the first time. And he looks ahead to next season when he might get a bigger shot.
“Yeah, that (possibility) is very exciting. I want to be here,” Sisco said. “I want to be a starting catcher in the big leagues. That is the main goal and just working towards that. Using the stuff that I have learned to implement it in the game and we’ll see what happens.”