Last winter there was a thought rumbling through many sites following the Orioles, including some card carrying journalists. That thought was: "What did Caleb Joseph ever do to Dan Duquette?" He had just enjoyed a 299/346/494 season behind the plate in Bowie. Those are numbers that would make anyone drool over any catcher in the minors. However, the Orioles chose not to protect Joseph in the Rule 5 draft, and this made many a fan and a couple writers concerned and maybe even irate.
The other side of the coin was this: Joseph was 27 years old. He was in his fourth season at Bowie and was almost three years older than the rest of his competition. Bats that shine at 27 years old in AA typically are not bats that interest people much. Added to that, he threw out about a third of his baserunners, which is not exactly all that special in the minors where baserunners often depend on speed as opposed to skill to swipe bases. His defense was considered suspect enough that the club tried to put him at first and left field in order to free up the catcher slot for other catchers in the organization. Word was simply that Joseph was a poor defender whose bat was more suited for mistakes lobbed up by organizational mound filler.
As every baseball folk I talked to imagined, Joseph was not selected in the Rule 5 draft by any team. No one wished to give him a slot on their roster. For the Orioles, this meant that Joseph would likely go down to Norfolk and work with some of the pitchers he had caught in Bowie. In case things went south, he would be one of the first guys back to Baltimore in a pinch before the club could cobble a real solution together.
That is what happened. Except, when Joseph made his way to Baltimore, he showed a skill that is very difficult to notice in the minors. One of the major differences between the majors and minors is that more money is spent on measuring things in the majors. One of those things is pitch tracking. What slowly became apparent was that even though Joseph's bat failed, as expected, at the MLB level he was displaying a pitch framing skill that rivaled some of the best in the game.
The above table is a mess. I admit that. What it is is the way you add up the value of the player. You take all of the events of his hitting (bat) and associate appropriate expected runs from each event. You do the same with how he runs the bases and steals (base). For catchers, you then use passed balls, wild pitches, and how he controls the running game (field). Then you adjust for the offensive level expected from a certain position (pos) along with the strength of the league (league) and what a replacement level player is (rep). You add this together for runs (Runs). It is this number that you see reported at Fangraphs.
Next, I looked at pitch framing runs from Baseball Prospectus and added those (pf) into the mix to give us a total runs (tRuns) number. That runs number can then be translated into wins above replacement where a win is worth about 9 runs. I did this for Joseph's year to date, what his current performance would look like over a full season (500 PA and 9,000 innings behind the plate), and Matt Wieters' 2012 season where he had one of his best seasons hitting.
The crazy thing you see above is that Caleb Joseph projected over a full season is about as valuable as one of Wieters' most valuable seasons. In other words, if Joseph would be able to keep this up over a full season, then he is an All Star caliber catcher and it is largely the product of his pitch framing skills. It may well be that the renaissance that the Orioles' staff has experienced over these past two months is in large part due to the elite pitch framing that Joseph has been flashing. Add that to his last month at the plate (.357 wOBA) and such a player might well be one of the best in baseball. Then again, we are talking about small sample sizes and Joseph certainly struggled early on.
If even the defensive performance is truly legit and nothing else, then it still opens up some difficult questions in the fall. If Joseph is such a valuable catcher, then why pay Wieters 10 MM or so in his final year to be the team's catcher? Could the Orioles find a taker on Wieters who is not concerned about his Tommy John surgery and perhaps the club could shore up another position? Or should the team simply carry two catchers, let Joseph more fully prove his talent, and give Wieters more time off? Could the Orioles pull off a move similar to the Athletics this season and deal away their very own Cespedes type of player?
Certainly, this is a question no one expected to arise in this way. No one expected Joseph to be a defensive juggernaut. Maybe 404 innings behind the plate simply are not enough to show true skill. If not, he is simply having an exceptional run of good fortune.