In 2016, Sandy Leon hit .310/.369/.476 in 283 plate appearances. For the Red Sox. No, not the Pawtucket Red Sox. The Red Sox.
The 2016 season featured a number of surprises, but none quite so out there as Sandy Leon. Before the season, he was an afterthought if he was lucky enough to be remembered at all. A career OPS+ of 33 with a glove that, while strong, didn’t really measure up to that of Christian Vazquez left him looking pretty damn redundant. SoxProspects’ writeup on him is all of one sentence. Between Swihart and Vazquez and Hanigan, the thinking was that if Sandy Leon was in the majors, it meant the Sox were in emergency territory.
And that’s pretty much how it played out! The only reason Leon made it up was because the Sox had broken one catcher trying to play him in left field, suffered through another attempting to redefine the Mendoza line, and lost the third (who made said Mendoza line look like MVP-level offense) to a neck strain. In a year where a lot was going right for the Red Sox, none of it was happening behind the plate.
Then Leon came in and played like a man possessed. The Miracle of Leon, by my count, lasted some two months, from June 7th to August 18th. He hit .382/.437/.654 in just over 150 plate appearances. There was a lot of BABIP going on there. But there was also a player with one career homer suddenly exploding for seven.
The problem is what happened the rest of the way. It takes some pretty awful results to go from a 1.091 OPS to an .845 mark in the span of seven weeks. How bad? .224/.289/.267 bad. Even more concerning, where Leon’s huge numbers had come with a huge BABIP, these awful numbers did not come with an awful mark. .321 is pretty damn reasonable, particularly for a catcher. Leon didn’t just stop hitting. He struck out six more times in twenty fewer at bats, added zero homers to his seven-bomb total, and just generally looked like the old Sandy Leon. Maybe a little improved, but not significantly.
It’s true that catchers have a tendency to be late bloomers thanks to all the extra stuff they have to worry about in addition to learning how to hit increasingly difficult pitching as they make their way up through the minors. Jason Varitek didn’t exactly figure out Double-A until he was 24, for instance, and like Leon, his first above-average season in the majors didn’t come until he was 27. You don’t need to bust out any (modified) Lloyd Bentsen quotes on me here; I’m not saying Sandy Leon is going to be Jason Varitek. But there’s at least reason to give some credence to the idea that a late breakout for Sandy Leon is more likely to be real than a late breakout for random non-catcher X, Y, or Z.
That being said, you have to make some serious logical leaps to believe that Leon is as good as he was over the full course of 2016. Some part of his early success was a matter of pitchers challenging him like he was batting ninth in a National League lineup given the guys who were typically batting behind him. Once they started to show some more nuance against him, Leon did struggle to adjust. Toss in the BABIP red flags, and he’s got a lot to prove.
But that’s a much better position than he was in six months ago, when nobody even thought about Leon proving things in the first place. If nothing else, the ability to hit seven balls out (plus one in the postseason) is more than anyone ever expected he’d manage in the past. It was completely missing from that awful second half, but that doesn’t invalidate the results of the first, especially those that largely eschew luck.
Typically I think it’s best to avoid relying too much on either the good or the bad parts of a player’s season when the whole picture is available and there’s no clear catalyst for things changing (usually in the form of an injury). But expecting Leon to hit .310/.369/.476 is pretty unrealistic. The high BABIP is still there, and he’s not going to get the same pitches to hit in 2017 he saw early in 2016. But if he’s not going to hit to a 123 wRC+, he really doesn’t have to. The Red Sox would be overjoyed with a league-average bat. They might even be willing to accept a good deal less, given how hard it is to find a catcher who can both A) defend and B) remember which end of the bat to hold when he steps up to the plate.
And the best news for Sandy is that he’s earned the chance to prove that he can do both of those things. Christian Vazquez was barely in the mix by season’s end. Blake Swihart seems very likely to get an opportunity to prove himself again given that he did show he could hit last year, and his audition at catcher lasted a handful of games. If Swihart can take on some of the at-bats against right-handed pitchers that seemed to flummox Leon at times, and Leon can prove that some of the power was for real, that’s all it will take to make him quite the find at the position. It really doesn’t take much.
If not? We’ll chalk up Sandy Leon’s 2016 as one of those weird seasons that baseball produces. It was beautiful and fun while it lasted. And maybe, just maybe, it will prove the start of something larger.