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Caleb Joseph Can’t Buy an RBI (but It’s Not Entirely His Fault)

Searching for scapegoats for Baltimore’s beleaguered backup catcher

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s now hard to believe, but Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph started this season as a possible breakout candidate. I hope you didn’t draft him in your fantasy league: In 141 sporadic plate appearances, Joseph has hit .174/.216/.197. That’s bad, but it’s not unprecedented. This is unprecedented: Joseph hasn’t driven in a run. Since the RBI became an official statistic in 1920, no non-pitcher has finished an RBI-less season with more than 97 plate appearances. Joseph is way past that point, and he’s almost out of time to hit his way off the list.

In his defense, Joseph isn’t having the worst offensive year ever, even on a per-plate-appearance basis. Since World War II, 12 hitters have made at least 140 plate appearances with worse park- and era-adjusted offensive stats. Remember Luis Cruz, who hit .145/.190/.179 over 187 PA for the Dodgers and Yankees in 2013? Remember Leury Garcia, who hit .166/.192/.207 over 155 PA for the White Sox in 2014? The point is, you probably don’t, and those are examples from recent seasons. They drove in runs, so their struggles didn’t stand out, whereas Joseph’s season is a week away from infamy.

Although Joseph hasn’t hit, he’s also a victim of circumstance. A decade ago, Juan Pierre went 204 plate appearances without an RBI, but no one noticed because his slump came during a season in which he drove in 40 runs in his other 546 trips to the plate. With more playing time, Joseph would have been bound to break the slump; in the big leagues last year, he drove in 49 runs, and in 21 minor league games this season, he’s knocked in 11. Instead, he’s earned just the right amount of reps to set the wrong kind of record.

Here’s the good news: We’re living in enlightened times. We now know that RBIs aren’t the best way to evaluate hitters, because they’re so sensitive to timing and teammates. Which, by extension, suggests that Joseph’s RBI goose egg isn’t (entirely) on him. So buck up, Caleb; I’ve got your back. After considerable research, I’ve uncovered eight other parties on whom we can pin partial blame.

1. It’s Travis Shaw’s Fault

Joseph is a gifted receiver, but his framing skills didn’t help him on May 30, when Shaw fouled a ball straight into the catcher’s cojones.

Joseph somehow stayed in the game, although the impact caused an injury so severe that it required surgery. (The procedure’s precise nature was mercifully left unspecified.) On top of what we can only imagine was excruciating pain, Joseph missed 31 games, during which he otherwise would have had a decent chance to snap the streak — thereby adding insult to testicular injury.

2. It’s the Other Orioles’ (and Buck Showalter’s) Fault

RBIs are all about opportunities. Joseph, who’s batted almost exclusively eighth or ninth in an Orioles lineup that ranks 10th in the American League in OBP, hasn’t had as many as most hitters. According to Baseball Prospectus data, the average MLB hitter has had .30 runners in scoring position per plate appearance. Joseph has had .23 runners in scoring position per plate appearance — about 23 percent fewer than the typical player. Earlier this month, Joseph said, “It’s all Ryan Flaherty’s fault, because he never gets on base.” Joseph was joking, but his statement wasn’t totally untrue. So blame Buck for batting Joseph so low in the lineup, blame Flaherty for his .291 OBP, and blame the other hitters ahead of Joseph for smacking so many damn dingers that they’re often back in the dugout by the time Joseph grabs a bat.

3. It’s Orioles Third-Base Coach Bobby Dickerson’s Fault

Despite his empty RBI column, Joseph hasn’t gone hitless this season with runners in scoring position. He’s singled twice with runners on second, but in both cases, the runner failed to score. On May 30, Flaherty held up.

And on April 21, Chris Davis did the same.

The link between the two plays? Dickerson, the man who held up both stop signs. He may have made the right calls, but being conservative with Dan Duquette’s team of station-to-station sluggers cost Joseph two shots at avoiding trivia immortality.

4. It’s Nolan Reimold’s Fault

On May 11, Joseph doubled with two outs and a runner (Reimold) on first. With two outs, runners can leave on contact, which adds some spring to their step. This season, runners on first have scored on 52.3 percent of two-out doubles, compared to 33.7 percent with fewer than two outs. In this instance, Reimold was one of the minority who didn’t cross the plate.

We could heap another play on Dickerson’s plate, but I prefer to blame Reimold. According to Statcast, Reimold’s average first-to-third time this season is 8.7 seconds, roughly two-thirds of the way down the list of 305 runners (from Byron Buxton to Jesús Montero) with at least 10 tracked times. With Joseph willing him on, Reimold made good time by his standards: He went first to third in 7.8 seconds, the second-fastest of his 11 tracked times in 2016. While we can’t blame him for lollygagging, we can still blame him for not taking a longer lead. Reimold was 11.4 feet from first base at pitch release, almost four feet closer than the 15.1-foot leaguewide average on all pitches. Come on, Nolan, live a little.

5. It’s Eddie Rosario’s (and Paul Molitor’s) Fault

The left fielder on the previous play was the Twins’ Eddie Rosario, who has an excellent arm. Rosario’s average throwing speed on “competitive” throws this season is 95.1 mph, which ranks seventh among all outfielders with at least 10 such throws. If not for Rosario’s cannon, Dickerson might have waved Reimold home.

So why, you might wonder, was such a powerful arm stationed in left field, where teams traditionally stick weaker-armed outfielders? Because the Twins’ right fielder that day, Miguel Sano, owns one of the few outfield arms that’s even stronger than Rosario’s, although his right-field defense is awful otherwise (minus-8 Defensive Runs Saved in only 38 games). So blame Rosario, blame Sano, and blame the Twins for insisting Sano was an outfielder until abandoning the misguided experiment at the end of May — a few weeks too late for Reimold to run.

6. It’s Brock Holt’s Fault

On April 11, Joseph hit a tailing liner to left with a man on second. Based on video and hang-time analysis, Baseball Info Solutions says the ball was only 48 percent likely to fall for a hit; Inside Edge, meanwhile, classifies it as an “unlikely” hit, a category that encompasses plays that are made only 10–40 percent of the time.

Naturally, Holt recorded two outs on the play, making the catch and doubling up the runner on second.

7. It’s Kevin Kiermaier’s Fault

On September 7, with runners on first and second, Joseph drove a ball 400 feet to center, the farthest he’s hit a ball this season. Both BIS and Inside Edge gave it 30–40 percent odds of landing safely, which would have earned Joseph at least one RBI. Of course, those odds don’t account for the identity of the fielder — who, because Joseph can’t catch a break, happened to be the AL’s defending Platinum Glover, Kevin Kiermaier.

8. It’s the Umpires’ Fault

On April 22, with a runner on first, plate umpire/P.G. Wodehouse character Quinn Wolcott called consecutive strikes that Joseph found distasteful.

According to data from Pitch Info, those pitches were only 11.4 percent and 3.2 percent likely, respectively, to be called strikes, based on location, count, pitch type, batter handedness, and other factors. Joseph fouled out.

On July 23, again with a runner on first, umpire Doug Eddings called questionable strikes on the first two pitches Joseph saw from Josh Tomlin, again to Joseph’s chagrin.

The offset angle makes it hard to tell, but those pitches were only 12.4 percent and 2.3 percent likely to be called strikes. This time, Joseph grounded into a double play. Had he been in more favorable counts, Joseph would have been in a better position to plate those runners from first.

Those four pitches were the lowest-probability strikes called on Joseph this season; the worst one called on Joseph with a runner in scoring position came on September 11, courtesy of umpire Kerwin Danley. As Joseph stood in for an 0–1 pitch from Justin Verlander in the top of the fourth, Orioles broadcaster Gary Thorne intoned, “All right, Caleb, let’s end that no RBI right here. Enough talk, enough numbers — get it over with.” Seconds later, Verlander threw this pitch:

That pitch was only 18.7 percent likely to be a strike, and the blown call was potentially costly. After 1–1 counts this season, batters have hit .196 with a .624 OPS off Verlander; after 0–2 counts, they’ve hit .116 with a .300 OPS. Two pitches later, Joseph struck out.

Instead of blaming individual umpires, maybe we should be blaming their boss, Rob Manfred, for not installing robot umps in time to save Joseph’s season. How is my man supposed to rack up ribbies when he can’t count on the strike zone staying the same size?

Joseph, the man with the Kevlar cup, is having one of those years when your opponent turns two on a 93 mph smash with the bases loaded; when you hit what looks like a rattle-around double with the runner in motion from first, and the ball goes foul by a few feet.

At this point, his fate might be sealed, no matter how many of his teammates run into outs trying to deliver his elusive RBI. So we’ll close with some small consolation: Joseph has a positive “Clutch” score, which means he’s actually been better in high-leverage spots than he has overall. In other words, Joseph hasn’t come up especially short in crucial situations; he’s just been bad all the time. At least you can’t call him a choker.

Thanks to Mike Petriello of MLB Advanced Media, John Choiniere of Baseball Prospectus, Kenny Kendrena of Inside Edge, and Scott Spratt of Baseball Info Solutions for research assistance.