When Caleb Joseph was called up to the majors, he was applauded for continuing to work hard in the minors and not giving up on his dream of playing in the big leagues. At 28 years old it almost seemed as if he would toil in the minors for his entire professional career. When the Orioles opted to keep Joseph on the roster over Steve Clevenger there seemed to be some general confusion as to why the superior defensive catcher was sent down. Now that Joseph has had nearly 150 innings of work behind the plate over 20 games of major league action so far he is being hailed as a great defensive catcher.
But is it true?
He certainly has the reputation of being gifted defensively behind the dish in the past. Baseball America voted him the best defensive catcher in the Orioles farm system for three straight years from 2009 to 2011. For his defensive work so far this season, Fangraphs is giving him high marks, with 3.3 defensive WAR. Comparing his defensive value, per Fangraphs, to what the other catchers in baseball are doing right now, he would be ranked in the top half of all catchers with less than half the playing time.
That’s pretty impressive considering the defensive leaders at the position have played 400 or more innings behind the plate. Essentially, they have been able to accumulate the defensive WAR in part because of the sheer volume of work they’ve had so far. Joseph on the other hand has nearly caught up to them in less than half the time, as was already mentioned.
But is he really as good defensively as fans, analysts, and sports writers are proclaiming?
Pulling data from Baseball Prospectus regarding catcher defense we get the following chart, comparing all three Orioles catchers.
|NAME||FR CHANCES||PRED STRIKES||ACTUAL STRIKES||EXTRA STRIKES||BL CHANCES||PRED PB/WP||ACTUAL PB/WP||PB/WP SAVED|
(Data shown is from beginning of 2014 season through June 12, 2014)
When comparing all three catchers that have had time behind the plate this season, one of the first things that should stick out to you is that Matt Wieters has been the least valuable defensive catcher among the group. His framing ability has often been questioned and this data highlights that as a weakness of his, at least for this season.
Joseph has excelled at framing pitches and getting those extra strikes for his pitchers and the team. We shouldn’t chalk it up to having a lucky run of framing either, as Harry Pavlidis of Baseball Prospectus has explained that catcher framing stabilizes fairly quickly. We’re talking after just a few hundred chances behind the plate. One area of weakness is in the realm of blocking, allowing four passed balls already.
That being said, another area of weakness that has been tracked by Tucker Blair is the amount of time it takes for him to unload the ball from his glove and get it to an infielder on attempted stolen bases. While he has caught 7 out of 17 (41 percent) attempted base stealers this season we still must take into consideration who he has caught stealing and the amount of time it is taking him to get the ball to his infielder.
The following chart shows the typical grades for a catcher’s arm, thanks to Ethan Purser at Baseball Prospectus:
|Grade||Pop Time (in seconds)|
|40: Below Avg.||2.0-2.1|
|30: Well Below Avg.||2.1-2.2|
Joseph is taking, on average, roughly two seconds to get the ball out of his glove and to his infielders when runners attempt to steal. His caught stolen rate may seem impressive but he threw Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez out in the same game. He has been able to nab the slower runners when they attempt to steal, but it’s been the true base stealing threats that he hasn’t had any real success at getting. Players like Craig Gentry, Coco Crisp and so on seem to be a bit too fast for Joseph’s arm to catch up to. Even Jose Bautista stole a base off him.
With that being said, Joseph does do many other things quite well behind the dish. His footwork has improved substantially over the years in the minors, his framing ability has him in the conversation for top 12 or so in framing ability, and his quick reaction and decision making have been quite impressive.
While Joseph may not be the “great” defensive catcher that broadcasters, local beat writers, and fans may talk him up to be, he is still shaping up to be someone worth viewing as a decently solid defensive catcher whose only real shortcoming is his arm, and to a lesser degree his footwork.