As the Orioles hold back Rutschman, what have they gotten from their current catchers?

Orioles’ pitching this year was better than anyone could rightly expect from a rotation featuring Jordan Lyles and Bruce Zimmerman. For those of us who are not Professional pitching coach, manager (and former catcher) Brandon Hyde has stated loudly, clearly and repeatedly one of the reasons for this. As MASN’s Roch Kubatko writes:

Manager Brandon Hyde is very pleased with his catching tandem of Robinson Chirinos and Anthony Bemboom, particularly with the impact it has had on the pitching team. Others have mentioned it too.

They won’t block Adleyrutschman or delay his arrival, but they’ve had a positive impact.

Well, it’s more of a mixed bag than that. If you’re reading this, needless to say, this backstop pair didn’t hit well. Chirinos and Bemboom bat far south of the Mendoza Line with a measly OPS of .448 and .427, respectively. “It was hard,” says Chirinos himself about his hard work on the plate. “I don’t think I had anything like that in my early career as a rookie, but I definitely have a better understanding now of what I need to do to get over it.” Not since he was a beginner! Chirinos has a career OPS of 0.746. Offense is down all over the place, but not that much.

So what exactly is the added value here at the backstop position? Or rather, to put it in WAR terms, what exactly is the added value? Was the Bemboom/Chirinos move better than the replacement level?

Answer: They have not.

Defensively there are real bright spots. The O’s rank only behind Oakland in stealing percentage as a team at 47%. Only two teams in baseball have been less impacted, Oakland and the Yankees. This is largely thanks to Robinson Chirinos, who ranks second among all catchers for percentage of steals caught, with six runners thrown out, an impressive 54.5%. Bemboom, No. 16 with a 38% caught stealing rate, is no slouch either.

In terms of saved runs, O’s Catcher rank 3rd and 12th in the league, respectively. They are both top 20 for arm strength, according to Baseball Reference metrics. Not. To. Shabby!

On the other hand, when it comes to two key catcher defensive skills—calling good play and pitch-faming—neither is considered outstanding.

When it comes to game calling, Chirinos is considered quite OK, worth 0 runs overall, but when it comes to pitch framing, baseball metrics are very unfriendly. They rank Chirinos 58th of 58 catchers in runs saved by pitch framing (-4) and 82nd of 82 (-3) according to BRef. )

What is this, chirinos in the territory of Pedro Severino? Frankly, the eye test is hard to come to terms with for two reasons. First, you keep hearing O’s pitchers credit the catchers for calling good games in 2022 (here’s an example, but you can find plenty more). By all accounts, Chirinos embodies the whole “cagey veteran catcher” thing perfectly, and people seem to enjoy working with Bemboom, too. Second, it’s not clear how this pitch-framing data accounts for the Orioles’ new approach of “pitching more in the middle part of the plate than in the past,” as Hyde has explained. “You see a lot of teams doing that now, especially with people letting it play on the white part of the plate and so far so well with our guys.” For pitchers whose stuff has natural movement (think Dillon Tate, Cionel Pérez and Jorge López), being finicky about painting the corner is less important than just setting the pitch at the plate and letting it snap . So far, the Orioles are third in the AL in terms of percentage of strikes thrown. Whatever the new approach does, it appears to be working.

Anyhow, let’s assume that O’s catchers are good on defense: That means that not only do they throw out a lot of batters, but they also make their pitchers feel calm and say good plays, which we at least agree to seem to be watching.

Despite all of this, the bats are still dragging the team down, way down. Robinson Chirinos is literally the last of all catchers in Total WAR at -0.6 according to Fangraphs. Bemboom is also in the red at -0.2. (For comparison, the Cubs’ Wilson Contreras has a 1.2 WAR on the season.) They’re bottom 20 in barrels and hard hit percentage, and Chirinos’ exit speed averaging 84.9 mph is the sixth-worst of any MLB -catcher.

Against this backdrop, it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify Adley’s belated promotion – except, of course, in relation to the owners’ unwavering insistence that the needs of the top-flight club are irrelevant to potential promotion decisions. Understood, understood, understood.

So it doesn’t matter to the front office that the Orioles are stuck in a brutal streak against the AL East, some of the deadliest teams in baseball. Or that the Orioles had netted nine runs in their last six games prior to Wednesday night. Or that Adleyrutschman has the tools to match the defensive performance of the current O catchers while eclipsing their punching power. Of course, for the fans of O, all of this is of great importance and urgency.

The good news is: in a week or so (fingers crossed) the catch position will be Slipmans alone, and all of that discomfort will be behind us.

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