06 August 2014

Caleb Joseph Is an All Star

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.

bat base field pos league rep Runs pf tRuns WAR
Joseph -3.5 -2.3 4.1 3.4 0.7 4.6 7 10.2 17.2 1.9
xJoseph -11.4 -7.5 10.2 8.4 2.3 15.0 17.0 25.3 42.2 4.7

Wieters 2012 5.0 -4.9 9.1 9.2 1.8 17.5 37.7 5 42.7 4.7

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.


Eric said...

Not going to lie, this is the first time I have ever commented on an article. But I have been reading you guys for a while, and while I do feel sometimes you do delve a bit too far into advanced stats for my liking, I think I a wholeheartedly behind this article. And that is considering I have been a 100% pro-Matt W keep him for anything guy since the beginning.

But with the uncertainty of the injury and the state of the position not only in Baltimore but around the league it might be worth it to cash in on a catcher with a big name, and rep, for someone who seems like can provide at least replacement level value basically due to defense with the occasional hitting streak like Joseph. There are a lot fewer big name catchers now than in recent past (Posey, Y. Molina, Lucroy, S Perez at times, maybe an up and coming D Norris, and slightly above average but not much more than that J Castro). It might be time for the bandwagon to finally depart with Matt W and accept he may be move valuable now as a trade piece, as hard is that is to say.

Jeff Long said...

Yes yes yes yes yes. So many times yes.

Look at Yan Gomes in Cleveland who is among the game's best framers as an example of guys that have value for this ability that's otherwise unnoticed among MLB fans. Molina brothers as well. The Red Sox have an excellent framer in Christian Vazquez.

I'm a big Joseph fan, and I'm glad we're talking about how good he is defensively as opposed to "Oh he's hitting .200, he sucks". The bat will come around, but the glove has already been here for a while.

Anonymous said...

Definitely think we should shop Wieters if Joseph plays like this for the rest of the season. It was clear he had some ridiculous defensive chops from the moment he came up, and he looks like he'll hit alright for a catcher. Wieters is on the decline (I'm not buying his performance early this year), and not only with the bat.

Just watching Joseph shows how adept he is at pitch framing, even without looking at the stats. Notice how he shifts his body when he sets up, rather than just moving the glove. Notice how the glove doesn't move at all when he catches the ball. Wieters was never a good pitch framer, and Joseph is an elite one.

Unknown said...

His offense has really picked up since the beginning of July as well. I believe he's hitting around .300 since then. The three home runs three games in a row help too. Get Elias on it, how many times has a rookie hit 3 HRs in 3 cities in 3 days?

It'll be interesting to see what happens with Wieters. I think they keep him next year with Joseph as a back up. They have Chance Sisco and Michael Ohlman in the minors as well.

Anonymous said...

My only concern about trading away Matt is that he has a ton of big league experience that is really invaluable; he has seen a lot and experienced a lot that Caleb has yet to encounter. Also as this article points out, these stats are based on a small sample size. I think we need to see some more before we start circling the wagons and demanding the Matt be traded.

That being said I think that if Caleb continues to be this consistently good defensively we need to get value for Matt while we still can. Age should not be a factor seeing as both Caleb and Matt are 28, the Molina brothers are 32 and 39. There is a big market out there for a catcher like Matt, and I would like to see the Orioles get more than the Rays did for David Price.

Brad said...

I love watching the progression Joseph has made behind the plate and next to it in the batter's box. His slash line statistics since June 1st are better than Wieter's last year. Granted, this is a small sample size, Wieters has a better pedigree and MUCH larger track record, and they're very close in age (Wieters is less than a month older). All of that being typed, Wieters is entering the final year of team control in 2015 and the Orioles will have many players due raises via arbitration and Markakis and Cruz are free agents. Joseph will be under team control for at least five years and at least two of those years his pay will be under $500,000. Given Wieters pending free agent status in 2016 and his 2015 salary will be possibly reach eight figures trading him seems like a logical idea without Joseph's emergence as a quality starting catcher. The similarity in the age is meaningless if the Orioles project Joseph can continue his good play. And it means he'll be under team control through his prime. While Wieters will begin his free agent deal one month from turning into a 30 year old catcher. The problem with trading Wieters is he might not have much value. Teams don't like giving up quality assets for players coming off major injury, making approximately $10 million dollars, who will be free agents the next year. It may behoove the Orioles to simply pay Wieters, maintain great depth at catcher, and use both while looking for a trade. And I wouldn't be opposed to selling Wieters for $.40 on the dollar if the money saved allows the Orioles to fill a bigger hole given whatever budget Angelos has enacted.

Tyler said...

Move Wieters to 1B next year, Davis/Cruz play LF and DH. Joseph stays catching...

Unknown said...

I've had a gut feeling that Joseph was the better value for a few months now. If the Os can ship Wieters for something decent I'd be all for it. Hopefully he can prove himself healthy and the Os ship him as soon as possible after that. Even with Joseph's small sample size I say it's worth the risk given what Wieters will likely be paid in 2016.

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of keeping both and letting MW have some time off, maybe a little time at first and DH as well.

Zach said...

I think you're getting way ahead of yourself. The reason pitch framing data is not currently used by Fangraphs is that we can't say with any confidence what percentage of credit a catcher should be assigned for called strikes outside the zone. There are a ton of other variables besides pitch framing that enter the equation, including the pitcher's command and the umpire. His numbers are interesting, and it's something I am sure that the team is scouting. But especially in a small sample size, you're going to want to really hedge on those numbers. Projecting the true talent of his pitch framing skill as anything more than +5 runs/year would be irresponsible at this point.

Also, when you compare him to Wieters in 2012, keep in mind that Wieters caught 134 games. You can count on one hand the number of catchers that have played that many games and been productive in the last few years on one hand. Caleb Joseph could be that guy, but chances are much better that he's not.

Joseph is interesting right now, but there's a better chance that he has a short career as a backup than him being an all-star. Trading away Wieters thinking that Joseph is a suitable replacement would be a ridiculous move. If Wieters after 2012 and Caleb Joseph were both free agents right now, not one GM would be willing to pay Joseph as much as Wieters. In fact, the same would be true for Wieters today.

Jon Shepherd said...

There certainly is discussion over what degree a catcher has control over pitch framing, but we are talking about an r of 0.68. That is meaningful. Catchers with exceptional pitch framing measures do exceptionally well the next season regardless whether they catch for their current team or move on to the next. Yes, this is a small sample size as I repeated over and over and over again in the article, but Fangraphs' hesitance to include it in their measures is largely, I think, do to the haziness of the methodology. Everyone pretty much agrees the skill is real and we are close to measuring it well, but I find Fangraphs' conservatism to pitch framing while they embrace UZR a bit confusing.

Regarding your other points...the discussion at that point is hinged on an assumption of extrapolation. The point here is that there may be an exceptional value here while Wieters' value is well recognized.

Anonymous said...

I would definitely trade Wieters this off season. The O's have an excellent defensive catcher in Joseph. He has thrown out an amazing 50% of the runners. He can frame pitches. The O's staff has done fantastic with him catching. In addition to all that, since his really slow start offensively, he has really picked up his bat. The O's can spend the money on other parts of the puzzle. The O's missed the boat by not trading Davis last year after his career year. They also missed trading Johnson after his career year. The idea is sell high. The best gms do those type of things.

Anonymous said...

I just saw this article this afternoon, thus the late reply. I watched Caleb Joseph catch games at Frederick and Bowie and one year at Spring Training and I was impressed with Caleb's catching ability and how he called pitches. It's now Sept 12th, and this is a rough count so forgive me for any error, the Orioles record is something like 38-15 with Caleb catching and Wieters is the only other Orioles who's caught more winning games than losers. Caleb is a very crafty pitch caller (and I know a lot of it is being fed from Buck and his staff) and framer. I love Matt Wieters playing and attitude but I am rooting for Caleb to stay with the club and if Matt has to go for whatever reason, then so be it.