There’s not a whole lot of change on the offensive side of things for the Red Sox. Obviously, they lost David Ortiz and that sucks on multiple levels. Strictly on the field, though, it’s still one of the best groups in baseball with a strong core taking up most of the diamond. One of the few positions in which that is not yet the case is behind the plate. Boston’s catchers will probably be one of — if not the — least valuable position group on the roster, but despite that I find them to be utterly fascinating.
This isn’t the first time we, or anyone else for that matter, have talked about the trio. Only two of Blake Swihart, Sandy Leon and Christian Vazquez will make the roster on Opening Day, but all three are on relatively equal ground. Each has their strengths and their weaknesses. Swihart has the best offensive potential of the group and the highest ceiling, but isn’t nearly as polished with the glove. Leon is a good defensive catcher and had an insane hot streak last season, but his track record suggests that won’t continue.
Then, there’s Vazquez, who I’ve been meaning to look at more closely. Obviously, the defense is always going to be his calling card, as he’s one of the premiere defensive backstops in baseball. According to Baseball Prospectus’ catching metrics, he was among the most valuable framers in the majors last year despite playing in just 57 games. He played in just 55 games in 2014 and ranked even higher. On top of that, he has a fine throwing arm, is above-average at blocking pitches and has a stellar reputation for dealing with pitching staffs. In short, he checks all the boxes.
That is, except for any box on the offensive side of things. To say Vazquez hasn’t been a major-league caliber hitter in the majors would be an understatement. Even with his amazing defense, he needs to provide something at the plate. The challenge is finding the appropriate baseline for him to pull ahead as the real answer for the foreseeable future. According to BP, who of course has the metrics referenced above, he might already be there. In 2014 he was worth two wins above replacement level despite an anemic .617 OPS (70 wRC+). It’s hard to argue too hard with the numbers, but it still seems a bit extreme to me.
Another way of looking at this is by comparing him to the average catcher. Last season, your typical backstop was 13 percent worse than the league-average hitter at the plate (87 wRC+). As with everything, context is needed in this discussion to move that baseline one way or the other. In this case, when you consider Vazquez’s defense and the overall punch already in Boston’s lineup, you can move that baseline down. We can call it something like an 80 wRC+.
If you look at his career numbers, which to be fair only cover 385 plate appearances that span two seasons, he hasn’t really come close to that arbitrary baseline I just made up. He’s a career .233/.293/.308 hitter, which brings him to a 61 wRC+. The projections have a better outlook. ZiPS, which was released earlier this week, projects him for a 72 OPS+*. Steamer pegs him at a 79 wRC+. So, how does he make the jump from his current performance to this point in his career to what Steamer sees from him and beyond?
ZiPS doesn’t project wRC+, but OPS+ is a close enough translation for this.
Perhaps the area with the most room for improvement for Vazquez is the power department. He has just two home runs in his MLB career and boasts a career Isolated Power of .075. That’s...not great. Unfortunately, he’s a ground ball-heavy hitter who has never really shown much power in the minors outside of one outlier season in Greenville back in 2011. Maybe he can get that ISO up to triple digits, but don’t expect anything beyond marginal improvement here.
The area in which he can have a little more luck would be on balls in play. Historically, Vazquez hasn’t been a high-BABIP player in the majors. (The minors are a different story, with less sophisticated scouting departments and worse defensive players at every position.) It makes sense, as he doesn’t make a ton of hard contact and is a slow runner. Still, as he gets more experience against major-league pitching, one can see him running out a BABIP around .300 rather than the .285 he’s posted to this point in his career. For what it’s worth, both projection systems have him just above this mark.
Those are only going to be small improvements, though, and Vazquez needs to make a big leap if he’s going to be a legitimately impactful major-league hitter in this league. That brings us to his plate discipline. On the strikeout side of things, the now-26-year-old is mostly fine. He strikes out roughly 19 percent of the time in his career, which is better than average. He also has above-average contact skills that should help him keep his K-rate in the teens.
What Vazquez hasn’t been able to translate from his time in the minors, though, is his ability to draw walks. Through eight years in the minors, Vazquez walked almost exactly ten percent of the time and peaked with a rate as high as 11.7 percent. Yes, minor-league pitchers have worse control than those in the majors, but that doesn’t explain such a precipitous drop down to 7.5 percent in his career and 5.4 percent in 2016. Some of the issue is with him, as Vazquez was in the top quadrant of major-league hitters in terms of swinging at pitches out of the zone. Additionally, he watched an awful lot of strikes go by, with a higher rate than more than 35 percent of the league per BP. I wouldn’t expect him to start posting double-digit walk rates as pitchers are always going to challenge someone who can’t do too much trouble on any given batted ball. On the other hand, Vazquez is a smart enough hitter to expect him to get back to the eight or nine percent range.
If he can make all of these adjustments — slightly in power, a little more in BABIP and K% and a lot more in BB% — Vazquez can solidify himself as Boston’s catcher of the future. Of course, that’s a lot to ask for in any circumstance, never mind when you’re battling two other catchers. I’m still more of a Swihart believer than Vazquez, but there’s no denying the latter’s head start with the glove. Plus, the organization loves Vazquez and wants nothing more than for his offense to find that magical baseline to be acceptable as an everyday piece. With the lack of a frontrunner in this three-man race behind the plate, the time is now for Vazquez to make that leap.