For what seems like an eternity, Red Sox fans have been debating Christian Vazquez vs. Blake Swihart. Which one is the best option to help the current Red Sox team? Which one is the best option to help future squads? Which one will be best suited to utilize as a trade chip? Each catcher has their clear pros and cons. Vazquez is the defensive stud with some questions in the batter’s box. Swihart is the inverse of that. The conversation took and interesting and somewhat unexpected turn a few weeks ago when Swihart was demoted to Pawtucket and tasked with playing some outfield. That’s not what this is about, though. You may have your opinions on the move — I know I sure do — but it’s done and this isn’t the place to discuss that. What I’m interested in right now is what we’ve seen recently.
Early on in 2016, both sides are living up to their reputations. As you can tell by reading the headline and looking at that big ole picture of Vazquez at the top of that page, this is about him. Specifically, this is about his offense. He hasn’t been up all that long, but he is 69 (nice) plate appearances into season. Thus far, things haven’t gone exceedingly well. As of this writing, he’s hitting .250/.304/.375 with a 78 wRC+. That means he’s been roughly 22 percent worse than a league-average hitter. That means if he were qualified for the batting title, he’d be the 160th best hitter in baseball out of 189. Can the Red Sox really tolerate that kind of production?
Perhaps surprisingly (or not, I don’t know what’s going through your head), the answer to this question is yes. To start with, they clearly aren’t missing a beat even with his struggling bat at the bottom of the lineup on a regular basis. Boston’s lineup in its current form is more than fine without production from him, and the overall roster is in a position of needing his glove much more than a bat. The lineup is clearly on fire right now, with the eight other hitters on any given night being capable of exploding for multiple hits. Meanwhile, the pitching staff is full of solid pitchers, but ones who can certainly benefit from Vazquez’s defensive wizardry. So, in that sense, there really isn’t any such thing as too little production from the young catcher on the offensive side of the ball.
On the other hand, there is almost certainly some regression coming for this Red Sox lineup. That’s not to say they won’t still be very good, but they’re not going to score 150 runs a game or whatever they’re doing right now. Guys like Jackie Bradley, Travis Shaw and Brock Holt will take a step back at some point, and possibly all around the same time. At that point, it could be helpful to have a solid-hitting catcher in the lineup. The thing is, Vazquez isn’t really all that far off from being that. Yes, his line is atrocious, but that can be said for just about every other catcher in the league. Consider that the average major-league catcher is hitting .237/.306/.373 with an 83 wRC+ so far in 2016. Sure, that’s a little better than Vazquez, but the difference isn’t by an eye-opening amount. The truth is, catchers suck at hitting all over the league, and as long as the Red Sox are getting production from the rest of their lineup, they can live with it.
With that being said, some improvement at the plate certainly wouldn’t hurt. This is especially true since Vazquez is currently carrying a .326 batting average on balls in play. Now, that’s not a particularly egregious number, but he’s not exactly fleet of foot and he doesn’t have the bat-to-ball skills to expect that kind of performance to continue. The offset the expected regression on that front, he’ll have to cut his strikeouts. So far this year, he is striking out just under a quarter of the time, way up from his 16 percent rate in 2014 as well as his rates in the high minors. The biggest culprit here is an increased swing rate on pitches out of the zone. As someone who has demonstrated a strong understanding of the zone behind the plate as well as at the plate earlier in his career, though, I’m not overly worried about him making this adjustment.
Even with that adjustment, we’re still talking about a guy who is likely going to hover between a 75 and 85 wRC+ for the next few years. That doesn’t seem great, but it should be just fine for the Red Sox. For one thing, the offense is good right now and there is every reason to believe it should be good for a long time. Even more importantly, catchers can’t hit and likely won’t get any better as their defensive contributions are emphasized more and more. Whether or not that’s enough to make him a better long-term option than Swihart is up to you. Either way, given the lineup’s long-term outlook and the skill sets of other backstops around the league, Vazquez’s offense should at least be acceptable if he’s eventually deemed The Catcher of the Future.