It was one of the more compelling storylines of the Orioles’ 2016 season.
It was also one of the most surprising, most head-shaking, most ‘are-you-kidding-me?’ situations I’ve ever covered.
Somehow, some way, Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph had 141 big-league plate appearances and 132 big-league at-bats this season and didn’t drive in a run.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, he became the first person since RBIs became an official MLB stat in 1920 to complete a season of at least 100 at-bats without driving in one run.
I talked to Joseph about this on the last weekend of the regular season at Yankee Stadium. He was hoping to get into another game, get one more chance to stop his name from entering the baseball book of infamy. But he didn’t. With the postseason hanging in the balance, starter Matt Wieters played all three games in New York and in the AL Wild Card loss at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.
Joseph joked back then that he was considering buying a small stuffed monkey and shoving it in the back pocket of his uniform pants just in case he picked up an RBI. Then he would rip the stuffed animal out of the pocket and toss the monkey off his back – literally. He actually pantomimed such a stunt when he drove in a run at Triple-A Norfolk in August.
In a twisted way, Joseph said there might have been a bit of a letdown if he had actually broken his streak at the end of the season.
“I kind of don’t want it to happen, because it’s a source of entertainment (in the clubhouse),” he said that final weekend. “Seriously. It keeps people loose, giving them the opportunity to rag me.”
They ragged him plenty. And he took it. And he ragged on himself.
And maybe that’s why I’m telling you this story now, roughly a month after the season ended. Because now that all the Orioles’ games are over, the disappointment of a one-game playoff has subsided some and free-agency talk is about to start in earnest, the thing that may stick with me most from the 2016 season is the way Joseph handled such a disaster of a year. His attitude was nothing short of remarkable. Part of that, he said, was because the Orioles were winning, so his lack of offensive production wasn’t as critical. But part of it is just Joseph’s DNA.
“It’s frustrating, of course. But what are you gonna do about it? Go into the corner and cry and moan and mule-lip and want people to feel sorry for you?” Joseph, 30, said. “Nobody really cares. You go out there, cheer your teammates on, do what you can. Bring what you can bring to help the team and hopefully you’ll win.”
He said it’s an attitude he was taught as a kid. And he’s kept it while playing a kid’s game. He maintained that same attitude while grinding through the minors for seven, never-ending seasons before getting his first big-league call-up in 2014.
“My mom and dad and your coaches growing up, they’d tell you the two things you can control are attitude and effort, you know? It’s so silly, but it really is true,” Joseph said. “OK, things may not be going exactly how I would want it to go personally. But I can control my attitude, and it shouldn’t be that hard. It’s not that hard.”
Let’s be clear: Joseph didn’t enjoy having a RBI-less campaign. But, honestly, it wasn’t even the most painful part of his year.
On May 30, he took a foul tip to the groin and stayed in the game. Afterward, he was taken to the hospital and immediately underwent testicular surgery. He missed more than a month of the season. While he was on a rehab assignment at High-A Frederick, he was in a car accident. He wasn’t injured in that incident, but still … Really? What a year – one that ended with setting an infamous record.
“I’m also in the books for playing 470-some games at Double-A. I’m in the books for getting hit in the testicles on national TV and having surgery. You’re gonna be remembered for something. I mean, it’s not funny, but what are you gonna do? This has been like the story of my life, basically since I was really young,” Joseph said. “These types of things seem to happen to me; I’ve quite a long list of experiences. You deal with it.
“Some people would just crawl in a hole. Of course, I don’t go home and smile at night all the time. Yeah, it weighs on you. But there’s a choice to be made when you wake up in the morning. I can let this Charlie Brown cloud hang over me or am I gonna try and get past it?”
For the record, Joseph’s isn’t the longest RBI-less streak in baseball history; not even the longest this century. In 2006, Chicago Cubs’ leadoff hitter Juan Pierre drove in two runs in his first three games of the season and then didn’t get another RBI until the team’s 49th game. Pierre played in all of them, and amassed 204 plate appearances without an RBI during that stretch. But Pierre still had 40 RBIs total that season.
Known for his bat early on in his pro career, Joseph had 28 RBIs as a rookie for the Orioles in 2014. He had 49 RBIs in 100 games in 2015. He had 11 RBIs in 88 plate appearances when he was in the minors this year.
But in the big leagues in 2016, Joseph was 2-for-27 with a walk and a sacrifice bunt in 29 plate appearances with runners in scoring position. Both of those hits were singles in which the lead runners – Ryan Flaherty and Chris Davis – stopped at third base.
Then there was the second inning on Sept. 7 at Tropicana Field. With one out and runners on first and second, he absolutely crushed a Drew Smyly pitch to deep center. It looked like a homer, or at the least a run-scoring, extra-base hit. But Gold Glove center fielder Kevin Kiermaier made a tremendous leaping grab to keep Joseph’s futility ongoing.
Technically, Joseph will enter the 2017 season on a RBI-less streak of 172 plate appearances; he didn’t drive in a run in his last 31 times to the plate in 2015, either. His last RBI came in the sixth inning on Sept. 11, 2015, when his groundout against Kansas City’s Ryan Madson scored Davis. (Joseph actually had two RBI groundouts that scored Davis in that game.)
At some point in 2017, he’ll drive in a run. That monkey will come off his back, and we’ll all move on. The impressive thing, though, is that Joseph never let it get to him – at least not when teammates, fans and media were around. That’s just the guy’s philosophy on life.
“Stuff like that that you can’t control. You can control being a good teammate. And, first and foremost, that’s what you want to be known by,” Joseph said. “Because, believe it or not, 50 years from now the guys I’ve played with, they may remember that I didn’t have an RBI. But hopefully they remember more what kind of a teammate I tried to be every day.”