It was only a month ago when I wrote about Christian Vazquez’s less-than-ideal bat and whether or not the Red Sox could live with it. Spoiler Alert: I really hate when people use "Spoiler Alert" in sentences. Also, I came to the conclusion that yes, they could live with the catcher’s bat. Well, you may have noticed that things have changed a bit since then. I’m not positive the answer has — it might have, but I’ve become genuinely unsure and I’m not sold that I’ll have a better answer by the end of this — but things have undeniably changed.
For one thing, the offense isn’t as potent as it was even a few weeks ago. That was one of the biggest reasons I identified for why the Red Sox could deal with Vazquez’s underwhelming offensive production. Now, we’re talking about a lineup with a struggling Travis Shaw. We’re talking about a lineup with Jackie Bradley, who has still been fine but not the absurdly productive Jackie Bradley from earlier in the year. We’re talking about a lineup with Hanley Ramirez, who has had his ups and downs and lately that has involved more downs. There is no doubt that this is still an outstanding lineup, but it could use a little punch at the bottom of the order a lot more than t could’ve in May.
The rest of the lineup isn’t the biggest change since that last Vazquez post I wrote, though. That would be how the backstop himself has performed at the plate. At that time, he was the proud owner of a 78 wRC+, which is surely not great but it’s also entirely manageable. Now, he’s hitting .209/.248/.299. That’s a 38 wRC+. Thirty. Eight. That makes Vazquez the fifth worst overall hitter among all batters with at least 140 plate appearances on the season. That is the kind of mark that is both not great and entirely unmanageable. So, the Red Sox and their catcher need to figure out what’s been going on lately and whether or not it can be fixed.
To start off with the boring stuff, there is probably a little bit of bad luck being mixed in here, but to blame luck for everything would be disingenuous. Still, Vazquez is currently hitting .267 on balls in play, which is well below the league-average. Even Vazquez should be able to perform better than that, despite below-average speed and the inability to square up the ball at an above-average rate. His true-talent level likely lies somewhere in the .280-.290 range in terms of BABIP, so a little positive regression is coming his way.
Of course, a few points of BABIP doesn’t turn a 38 wRC+ into a more manageable figure. The real issue for Vazquez has been atrocious plate discipline, which is not something we are used to seeing from him. Right now his strikeout rate is at about 23 percent. Now, in the context of the modern game, that is not a detrimental rate by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not great, but it’s only a tick above the league-average. However, it’s fairly significantly up from his track record as a professional. It’s also combined with a five percent walk rate, which I think safely qualifies as A Problem. Throughout his minor- and major-league career, Vazquez has always relied on above-average walk rates to mask his lack of hard contact and overall power.
Now, we’re obviously dealing with an even smaller sample than most players in the league at this point, but there are still some real underlying issues at hand. He simply is not showing the same patience that he’s used in the past to help mask the fact that he struggles in making decent contact on a regular basis. Although he is seeing essentially the same number of pitches in the zone as he did back in 2014, his other major-league season, he’s swinging a lot more than he did that season. To make matters even worse, the biggest increase in his swing rate has come on pitches out of the zone. I talked about this trend a bit in the piece linked at the top of that page, hoping that it would improve. It very much has not. As of this writing, Vazquez has swung at pitches that should be called balls more than all but 31 of the 255 players who have seen at least 500 pitches this year.
To give him a little bit of credit here, he has made contact on a fairly significant number of these pitches, but that’s not really a good thing. It certainly doesn’t help the walk rate, and it also leads to a tremendous amount of weak contact and his ever-shrinking BABIP. Vazquez’s contact profile has been killed by an increase in ground balls — both Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus have him with the second-highest ground ball rate among those with at least 140 plate appearances — which don’t typically work out well for someone with his foot speed. He hit a lot of grounders in 2014 as well, but is current rate is untenable. It’s not a surprising result when you look at the specific pitches that he has been swinging at. Hint: He really needs to lay off pitches that are breaking down and out of the zone.
There’s little doubt that Vazquez is a better hitter than this. If he’s not, he’s legitimately not a major-league player, or at least not a major-league regular no matter how good his glove is. The Red Sox don’t have any alternatives right now, though, so they need to believe he’s better. He and his coaches need to find a way to help him lay off bad pitches, particularly those down in the zone that lead to weak ground balls. Not only will that help bring his BABIP back up, but it’ll get his walk rate back up as well. With the lack of appealing alternatives, they likely have the rest of the year to see if he can make the proper adjustment. If he can’t, it may be time to re-commit to Blake Swihart as an everyday catcher.