Interviewing O’s Catching Prospect Caleb Joseph

After a tip from Ian (graphic designer of Matt Wieters Facts) about his blog, I asked O’s catching prospect Caleb Joseph if I could send him a few questions, and he graciously agreed. We discussed a change in batting approach that’s resulted in him leading the league in batting average this year (and being selected for the All-Star game), his future hitting potential, game calling, catcher defense, team chemistry, and the troubles with having two (or three) first names. Caleb was picked in the 7th round of the 2008 Draft by the Orioles. In 263 PA in A- Ball (Aberdeen) last year he hit .261/.303/.441, and he’s followed it up with a .335/.373/.489 line thus far in A+ Ball (Frederick) this year. I was hoping to do a longer intro, but the whole interview (questions are bolded, answers are in regular text, and then added commentary is in italics) is so long that it’s best to just check out Caleb’s blog and these articles about him.

So first of, is there anything you’d want people to know about you as part of their introduction to you?

Full name is Caleb Martin Joseph. I’m 23, birthday is June 18, born and raised in Nashville, TN where I’ve lived my whole life. Went to Franklin High School and Lipscomb University. I have a brother who is in LowA with the New York Yankees, and a sister that’s a sophomore at Lipscomb.

Looking at your stats from 2008 to 2009, you’ve really bumped up your batting average by cutting way down on the strike-outs, but the power and walks are down a little bit as well. Was this a conscious decision on your part, to just try to put the ball in play more?

 I think so a bit. I feel a lot more comfortable at the plate now than I did in Aberdeen and that’s normal for me. Once I get accustomed to the league and how they’re pitching me, I don’t strikeout much. It was one of my goals to cut down on those strikeouts, so yea it’s been in my mind when I get two strikes.

I’d take a bunch of strike-outs if they came with homers and walks (as they tend to do), but if all else is equal then putting extra balls in play is always nice.

Going by the numbers and the scouting reports I’ve read, it sounds like you have good power (especially for a catcher – more on that later) but are still working on the plate discipline. Is that a fairly accurate (though simplistic) assessment of where you are now?

I feel like I have decent power for a smaller catcher. My power numbers are down a little bit this year but I’m hitting 80 points higher, so I’m not too worried about it. And I don’t claim to be a Matt Wieters or Joe Mauer type that’s gonna hit 20+ a year. I’ll hit a lot of singles, a good amount of doubles, and a lot of singles.

Mauer was a singles and doubles hitter up until this year’s HR explosion, but he adds that superb plate discipline to the mix. I personally don’t care too much about the power, as long as Caleb is working to get on base somehow. If he hits .335 at every stop and into the majors I’ll eat my hat, but a catcher that hits .280 is a guy who’s probably helping his team.

What kind of hitter do you eventually see yourself as; more a Miguel Olivo type (.242/.275/.419 career, for readers reference) who’s up there hacking but will put the ball out of the park on a pretty regular basis or a Ramon Hernandez type (.262/.326/.417 career) who’ll take an occasional walk and put the ball in play more, but still has some pop, or maybe something else entirely? (Joe Mauer, perhaps?)

I’d probably say more of a Hernandez but better if that makes any sense. I’ll hopefully hit for a high average maybe .270-285 with some occasional homers.

Ramon Hernandez is a former All-Star who’s made over $28 M in his career. Just saying, that’s not a bad place to be. Later I actually thought of a potentially better comp in Eli Marrero. Marrero came up as a catcher in the St. Louis system and while a couple inches shorter than Joseph’s 6’3”, he also had a smaller frame different than your stereotypical catcher. He hit .256/.314/.453 for his career in the minors and .243/.303/.411 in the majors. He didn’t walk all that much when he first came up but didn’t strike-out too much and hit for decent power. Later on, he was moved to first-base and the outfield, despite being a +14 run catcher for his career according to Chone Smith’s WAR data. His best offensive season came in 2004 with the Braves as a full-time OF, posting a .320/.374/.520 line. Eli was by no means a star, but he did hang around in the majors for 10 seasons. I’m not saying that Caleb can’t be better than Marrero (or Ramon Hernandez or Olivo) but considering Eli’s relative success, I’d be fairly happy to get that kind of production from a back-up catcher.

How possible do you think it is for a batter (in general) to just decide to walk more? Is that more of a tool (like foot speed) or a skill (like baserunning ability)? It’s not a decision to walk more at all. It’s a personal thing. Some guys have better eyes at the plate and can take very borderline pitches (Matt Angle), where some guys have good enough hand eye contact that they can swing at the first pitch they see, no matter what pitch it is and square it somewhere for a base-hit. I have walked more as of late because teams are throwing me offspeed pitches for balls early in the counts and they’re falling behind and then they can’t get their fastballs over. When I walk it’s usually on 4 straight balls. At most there are 5 pitches when I walk, 3 straight balls… one strike that I have to take then they throw another ball for ball 4. Pretty simple. I asked this in part because of Jim Rice. His defenders say he could have walked more if he wanted to, but didn’t try because RBI were what was considered important at the time. I mostly agree with Caleb – it’s not a decision to walk more. Some players do try to be more patient sometimes and chase fewer pitches out of the zone, but Ivan Rodriguez typically isn’t going to turn into Joe Mauer. Honestly don’t like that sort of “working the count” strategy, but at least Caleb’s not chasing those off-speed pitches out of the zone early in the count.

Back to the “good power for a catcher” thing. I know you talked on your blog about a potential position change, and how that could improve your hitting due to reduced wear & tear (which sounds fine when we say it, but probably feels less good when a foul-tip goes off your mask). The idea seems to be – to me – that you’re a good athlete and could handle a move to another position, and that perhaps because of your size and your throwing at catcher, a move might be for the best. On the other hand, while you might hit better out from behind the plate, you’d need to hit better at another position. The offensive bar for catchers is lower, and so – in my opinion – given your power and your dedication to improving yourself defensively, the quickest and surest route to the majors for you is probably as a back-stop. Unless, of course, you’re actually a plus-plus defender at third or something, in which case that would make up for the relatively higher offensive production required. No real question here, but any comment about the above?

 I’m going to stay a catcher that can hit until they tell me otherwise.

I’ll take that. I have faith in this front-office to use resources relatively efficiently. That means Caleb stays at catcher unless he proves he can’t.

So, about the defensive contributions of a catcher. Defense in general is still not the easiest thing to measure and analyze, but a lot of improvements have been made there. For catchers though, there are maybe some pieces still missing from the puzzle. One can look at stolen bases allowed, caught stealing, errors, wild pitches, passed balls, and pickoffs and compare a player to the average catcher, but that doesn’t really take into account a large part of a catcher’s job. Some work was done here looking at the effect of framing pitches which found it to be surprisingly important, but there were questions about how accurate it was. What do you think all/some of the contributions of a catcher are, is it somehow possible to measure all/some of them, and how large a difference do you think there is between the best catchers and the worst catchers, as compared to, say, the difference between the best and worst center-fielders?

It’s really impossible to measure all the qualities of a catcher. It all starts with how the pitcher feels because on that certain day it’s his day, he is the most important guy on the field. In the major leagues I don’t think there’s a huge difference between the best and the worst. I think there’s a difference between a Jorge Posada with serious experience and a Matt Wieters who’s brand new. They are both polished and good catchers, it’s just experience that separates them. First off, runners steal bases off the pitcher. If we get the ball down there in 2.0 accurately and the guy is safe it’s not our fault. That’s one thing that really burns me up is when people comment on the putout percentage when they’re not at the games. Some guys can be as slow as 1.7 to home plate. That makes it virtually impossible to throw him out. But they can’t see that in the box score. But there’s not enough time in the day to comment on the contributions we make daily. It’s both offensively and defensively. We’re constantly thinking the game, typically two and three pitches in advance. It’s all about playing the next play before it happens in your mind.

Agree that runners steal off the pitcher, mostly. I do find it interesting that one of the things mentioned in a discussion about qualities of a catcher that are impossible to measure (and thus aren’t in a typical box score, though likely could be found otherwise) is a measure of the time it takes for a pitcher to come home or a catcher to throw to second. This is one of those sitatuations where “stats can’t measure it” tends to mean that the most widely cited stats don’t mention it.  It should be entirely possible to correctly credit a catcher on how he throws out runners by normalizing for the time it takes his pitchers to throw home compared to the average pitcher. With regards to that last part, I think there’s a reason that a lot of catchers go into managing.

I don’t know how much pitch calling you currently do yourself, but what kind of strategy do you have there? There’s the pitcher’s repertoire in general, what he has working on a particular night, a batter’s strengths and weaknesses, and the game situation, but is there more to it than that, and how do you combine those different factors? Also, what about pitch sequencing? I’ve seen work done on that such as this that looks at the effectiveness of throwing a curveball after a high fastball (conclusion: quite effective) and this looking at pitch combos in general (conclusion: “As you can see, certain pitch combinations are far superior to others and a pitcher who just throws his pitches at random is not going to be very successful. Setting things up with a fastball is the way to go for a pitcher. Pitching backwards has become somewhat in vogue recently, but very few of the off-speed-then-fastball combinations are very good. Once you have shown your best off-speed pitch, it is hard to come up with a good plan for later in the count. Throwing the same pitch consecutively was far better than I would have thought. These combinations tend not to be used very often and probably should be called more often.”) So what are your thoughts on game calling?

Just my opinion but I totally think pitch calling is based on feel. What the catcher feels that the hitter is trying to do. Now at the same time there’s situations where you know exactly what he’s trying to do. Example: runners on first and second no outs, righthanded batter up at bat. This guy is trying to move the runners trying to hit the ball to right field. We typically stay away from anything away that he can flick over there and get the job done. Stuff like that. But when it comes to the curveball after the high fastball and all that stuff I don’t look at any of that at all. I completely focus on how he took the pitch, or how he swung at it, how his feet were moving or not moving and what his follow through was like. After noticing that I try and get a feel off the bat, how he hit it, where he hit it on his bat, what sound it made when it came off the bat. Those are all indicators of earliness, tardiness, or right on time. Then looking at the ball and how it came off the bat, with backspin or topspin, or sidespin all determines where his hands were when he hit it. So in about a 3 second time frame all that goes into account and based on the sequencing before and all these factors, that’s what tells me what pitch to call next. And obviously, the pitcher’s strengths, the score of the game, the inning, where we are in the order, who’s next, and who’s in the hole… and even sometimes where my players are positioned. It’s much more than a guess as you can clearly see.

Greg Maddux is going into the Hall of Fame in large part due to his ability to read all these things so quickly and so effectively. I didn’t mean to imply with the question that catchers just guess as to what pitch to call, but I think that having the information – such as that throwing the same pitch back-to-back can be more effective – might just be an additional thing to consider. If before the choice after a high fastball was – in a given situation – 50% change-up, 50% curveball, perhaps after seeing the data – and all else being equal – it would be 40% change-up, 60% curveball. Not changing the catcher into a computer, but just adding one more variable to the many he already considers.

Going over to stats in general. From batting average to on-base percentage (OBP) to on-base plus slugging (OPS) to weighted on-base average (wOBA), I would tend to think that the percent of players that are familiar with each one goes about 99.9%, 95%, 60%, 0.1%. How familiar are you, and other players, with some of the advancements made on the analytical and quantitative side of the game? Not just the new stats, but ideas such as the relative importance of defense and positional adjustments, as well as new technologies such as the Pitch/FX and Hit/FX tools. Is there really as much anger as there sometimes seems from (some) players towards fan/analysts that use this stuff?

I didn’t start looking at OPS till I got here. I didn’t even know it was a stat. But it seems to be a good indicator of how I’m doing and it shifts with my production on the field. I don’t like looking at K/BB ratio… I like k/AB ratio better because obviously I don’t walk as much as some guys. I only get angry at fans for using these stats to judge me as a player when they’ve never seen me. Stats are very very helpful, but they don’t tell you everything about the game. There are so many details that are left out of the stat books that are important.

Full disclosure: I’ve never seen Caleb play. I also spent some time judging him as a player, pretty much just using his stats. I’m not a very good scout, so seeing him in action probably wouldn’t help me very much with that. I can understand the feeling if a fan is just yelling “hey, you’re hitting .230!” and making a complete value judgment on that, but I’m pretty much going with “Caleb doesn’t walk enough right now (and so likely won’t in the future) to be an impact player in the majors, but he has other skills that will still allow him to be a contributor at that level.” Now, telling that directly to a player as I’ve done here delves into psychology and all that stuff, with the player (and I’m not referring to Caleb in particular here) potentially saying “what do you know, anyway?” or “I’ll show you – I’ll be successful without walking at all!” or “hey, maybe that’s something to keep in the back of my mind” or, I guess, just ignoring it completely. Does a player (again, not Caleb in particular) have a better chance of reaching his actual ceiling if he believes that it’s higher than it really is? I don’t know the answer to that, and as a non-athlete and generally non-seriously competitive person I’m not equipped to even speculate. My opinion doesn’t mean Caleb can’t win 3 MVP awards or go to the Hall of Fame, just that the stats tend to indicate to me that the probability of various outcomes leans strongly towards… well, frankly, not even making it to the majors just because most 7th round picks don’t, but generally an OK back-up catcher. I’m still pulling for him – he honestly seems like a really nice guy and the love of the game is a huge plus from a fan perspective – but that’s where my expectations are.

 Going beyond the quantitative stuff to an area a lot of analysts don’t really consider much – team chemistry. I’ve noticed that not only do good teams tend to have – from the media’s perspective – “good chemistry” and bad teams tend to have “clubhouse problems”, but good teams tend to more directly say that chemistry helped them while bad teams tend to say that their chemistry issues (according to the media) would more or less be solved if they were winning. It’s kind of an interesting split. What do you think about the whole team chemistry issue in general, and how much does what goes on in the clubhouse actually directly effect your performance on the field personally?

Team chemistry is obviously very important. I tend to think its more important in college and high school than professional ball but when you look at the winning teams they seemed to have it down. It’s not about liking the other guys, but it’s about respecting them and working together between the lines. It’s impossible to get 25 guys from entirely different backgrounds, countries, races, and expect them to like each other. It’s the manager’s job to get everyone on the same page and play as one between the lines. Some of the best teams I’ve played on hated each other in the clubhouse because they knew if they screwed up out on the field they were gonna hear about it after the game. And I’ve also been on teams that were so closely knit tight that it wasn’t even funny and we did big things. So it’s tough for me to say. I do know it’s tough to do in the minor leagues because you consistently have guys going up and down and it’s just tough.

That it’s less important in professional ball is largely my point, and I’d argue about how important it obviously is in the grand scheme of things. I would personally be greatly affected if I was on a team with “bad chemistry”, but then again I don’t have even the intangibles to make it to the big leagues anyway. It’s just my opinion, but I think that if it would have a big effect on you in the majors then chances are you aren’t equipped to be in the majors anyway.

I read that you’d think about going into managing some day. What kinds of things you would bring to the table as a manager? How would you go about constructing a line-up? Thoughts on pitch counts and reliever usage patterns? In-game strategy like the sac bunt and the intentional walk?

I for sure know I’d bring energy and excitement. It’s hard for me to know what I’d completely bring to the table and my philosophies as a manger because I’ve only been playing professionally for a year and a half. I still have some college blood in me and I don’t want to go out and say I’d hit and run and squeeze and all that because the professional game is COMPLETELY different than the college game. I’ll be a good motivator for sure though. I’ve had some great coaches that were great motivators and I’ve learned very well from them. As for pitchers and pitch counts- I’ll let my pitching coach decide that until I ‘FEEL’ either he’s done or it’s time to go, or if I’ve got a matchup going then we’ll make a movie. Until then that’s his job, to manage the staff.

Maybe he didn’t say that he’d let everybody steal all the time after going through the previous questions and realizing what I’d say to that. Given that I don’t think managers have a very large direct effect on the game, if he can get the maximum potential out of everyone on the team I’d think he’s doing a good job.

(And finally, by fan request) How do you feel about having two first names?

I actually have three first names. Caleb Martin Joseph. Funny you ask that because I typically am called Joseph Caleb. Especially in school when the teacher was calling the role, they always butchered it. I don’t mind one bit, because those who know me know what my name is and it’s Caleb not Ka-Leeeb as some people call me. I always get a good laugh when I hear that one. The announcer last night was calling me Ka-leeb Johnson… yea Johnson. It happens all the time. Oh well.

I want to really thank Caleb for answering these questions. First time I’ve ever interviewed a player, so I don’t know how I came off sounding. He was very cool and gracious though, and his answers were interesting and informative. Best of luck to Caleb in his career.