Although there is no such thing as a sure thing in sports, the way things look right now the Red Sox should have one of the better lineups in baseball. With the additions of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez as well as the improved health of Mike Napoli and Dustin Pedroia, there are very few holes on this offense. In fact, Buster Olney has opined that it is the very best unit in the game. While the offensive group should produce a lot of runs, there is still one weakness at the bottom. It comes in the form of Christian Vazquez.
Now, obviously he is not on this roster for his offense. He’s a defensive wizard, and there is some potential there for him to become one of the elite backstops in baseball, if he’s not there already. With that being said, it would still be nice to get some offense from the nine spot in the 2015 lineup.
Vazquez made his major-league debut in July, and stuck around for the rest of the season. In that time, he accrued 201 plate appearances and put up a .240/.308/.309 slash-line, giving him a 75 OPS+. That’s clearly not great, but there are actually some reasons to feel good about the 24-year-old for 2015. For one thing, he’s shown an ability to make adjustments through his professional career. After putting up a .665 OPS in his first stint at Greenville, he followed it up with an .863 mark in his second go-around. Similarly, his first OPS with Portland was .541, but he improved to .771 in 2013. On top of those improvements, he showed good composure at the plate. While many young players struggle with the strike zone, Vazquez came through with an above-average 9.5 percent walk-rate and an impressive 16.4 percent K-rate. Even with those positives, though, the results still weren’t great. There are a few things that are worth watching with him this year in hopes he can expand his offensive role on this team.
Keeping the ball off the ground
This was the biggest thing that ailed Vazquez in his first experience against major-league pitching. In 2014, an astounding 57.2 percent of his balls in play were hit on the ground. For context, just 16 of the 348 other players with at least 200 plate appearances last year had a higher groundball-rate. It wasn’t just the ground balls, though. It was the overall lack of hard contact. According to Baseball-Reference’s batted ball data, his line drive rate was just 17 percent. The league average is typically around 20 or 21 percent. These two things were the major contributors to his disappointing .069 Isolated Power. This lack of pop leads us to the next portion of his game to watch.
Pulling the ball with authority
It’s hard to pile up the extra-base hits when you struggle to pull the ball well, which is something Vazquez suffered from in 2014. He pulled the ball about 38 percent of the time he put the ball in play, and the results were atrocious. While he posted a 180 wRC+ on balls to center field, and put up a 96 mark to right field, he sat at an embarrassing -19 when he pulled the ball. This comes back to the ground ball issue. On contact to left field, 71 percent of them were hit on the ground. This type of contact is what leads to a .125/.125/.214 line with an .089 ISO. For a more visual look, check out the spray chart and look at how his hits were spread across the diamond.
Dealing with inside fastballs
This has been a problem with Boston’s young catcher throughout his pro career. Here is a note from his Sox Prospects page.
Gets tied up on inside fastballs.
It plagued him again this year. He saw 18 fastballs on the inner third of the strike zone, but only connected on one of them for an extra-base hit. Once again, Vazquez was hitting too many balls on the ground on fastballs.
A good hitter would be doing some serious damage with these pitches, but instead he rolled over on the majority of them.
Connecting with breaking balls
While he couldn’t hit the fastballs with authority, he was at least able to get some singles off of them. When pitchers threw their hardest pitches, Vazquez was able to post a .276 average with a .302 batting average on balls in play. However, in a small sample versus breaking balls, the youngster was completely baffled. He hit just .135 with a .194 BABIP against curveballs and sliders. While he did do fairly well at laying off the breaking balls down and away, I would expect pitchers to test him more with these pitches next season until he proves he can do real damage with them.
Christian Vazquez is one of the players I am most looking forward to watching next year, and not just for the defense. Yes, it will be nice to see him behind the plate again after being subjected to A.J. Pierzynski everyday to start last season, but there are plenty of interesting things to watch with him at the plate. His past leaves me optimistic to his ability to make adjustments, and his peripherals last year give reason to believe he’ll make those adjustments in the majors. There are still tangible areas of his game to look for him to improve, though, and it will be an exciting part of spring training and the first few months of the regular season.