Over the last few days, trade rumors have been swirling. This makes sense given there only being about three-and-a-half days remaining until the non-waiver deadline. What’s a little surprising is that the Red Sox are involved, considering them already making deals for Aaron Hill, Brad Ziegler and Drew Pomeranz. Of course, Dave Dombrowski’s presence makes everything a little less surprising. Anyway, despite the utter lack of pitching on this roster, the man involved in most of these rumors is Jonathan Lucroy, who is decidedly not a pitcher. Do the Red Sox really need him?
Well, he would definitely help. There is no denying that fact. On the other hand, catching is so bad that he would help essentially every team in the majors. In fact, did you know the Red Sox are eighth in fWAR behind the plate among all major-league teams? I certainly did not know that. Obviously, there are many reasons to be skeptical of a stat like that. Specifically, it’s natural to be skeptical of the stat itself. There are numerous problems with the all-encompassing WAR stats from all sites -- this isn’t a specific shot at Fangraphs’ version.
Even beyond that, though, the team’s ranking among all other catching groups is skewed by the sudden explosion of Sandy Leon. “The sudden explosion of Sandy Leon.” That is a real sentence that I unironically typed on line. What a time to be alive. However unlikely it may be, though, there’s no denying how incredible he has been this season. Did you know that Leon -- through just 91 plate appearances — is already the sixth most valuable catcher in baseball by fWAR and the 2nd most valuable in the American League? That is straight-up nutty. Does it really matter? No. But it does point out two things. The first is that catchers are so bad right now. It’s depressing. The other is that Leon is out of his damn mind right now.
None of this is to say that Leon should dissuade you from wanting Lucroy in a Red Sox uniform. That would be dumb. The latter is probably the second best backstop in all of baseball, is under contract through next year, and is a clear and obvious upgrade over the former. With that being said, Leon has held down a position that was in dire straits just a few weeks ago. Even if Leon decided to Constanza it and go out on top, he’d have produced approximate one bazillion times more value than any reasonable person could’ve expected. Of course, that’s not going to happen. Leon is going to be part of this team, and if a Lucroy deal doesn’t happen, he’ll probably play a significant role down the stretch as they fight for a playoff spot. He’s not going to be this good, or really anything close, but can he at least be usable?
Given how he’s played this year, asking if he can be usable seems a bit insulting. His track record prior to this run suggests it’s fair, though. He had 235 plate appearances in the majors before this season and produced a 33 OPS+. That’s bad. This year, he has a 177 OPS+. That’s good. Looking forward, I don’t think it’ll shock anyone to hear there’s some regression coming.
To start, the batting average on balls in play is going to come down. This is usually where everyone starts when it comes to regression, and honestly it always comes off as a bit lazy to me. It’s unavoidable in this case, though. Leon has a .469 BABIP this year, which is the highest in baseball among those with at least 50 plate appearances. Coming into this year, he had a career .257 BABIP in the majors. So, the .469 mark is having a major effect on his .288/.435/.635 line.
With that being said, it’s not the only thing going on here. Even when you normalize that mark to, say, .275, he’s still putting up a respectable line. Respectable for a catcher, at least. He’s walking 6.6 percent of the time, which is below average but not Salavador Perez levels of aggressiveness. On the flip side, he’s striking out at a rate of roughly two percentage points below the league-average. Considering he had struck out 25 percent of the time heading into the year, his current 19 percent rate is super encouraging. Additionally, he’s making more contact than he ever has. Sure, we’re dealing with a small sample, but there are encouraging signs that differentiate him from the black hole he was pre-2016.
Then, there’s the power. Honestly, I’m not really sure what to do with this. The man has a .257 Isolated Power right now. Coming into this season, Leon’s career ISO was .038. My calculator caught on fire trying to find the difference between those two numbers. Again, there is obviously regression coming. However, there is reason to think he can sustain something in the .100-.115 range. For one thing, this isn’t a fluke based on a couple big games. He’s sustained an ISO around .200 for most of his (admittedly short) time up this year. Furthermore, he’s getting plenty of pitches to hit due to being in a stacked lineup. No pitcher wants to give Leon a free base when he’s being followed by Mookie Betts, Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts and David Ortiz. Now, the pitches are getting a little tougher with this strong run, but he’s still been picking good pitches to hit.
Overall, the projections have him getting way worse. Obviously. I would tend to agree with those. ZiPS, for example, sees him as a 75 wRC+ for the rest of the season. PECOTA projects a .239 True Average, which is roughly the same level of production. If you give him a little more credit, particularly for the pitch selection and improved contact rate, he comes close to being a league-average offensive catcher (85 wRC+).
On top of that, Leon is a fine defensive catcher. Is he Christian Vazquez? No, but very few are. Still, BP’s catching metrics have Leon has a plus framer, both this year and through his career. He’s also solid at controlling the running game.
I’m not going to go as far as to say I’m excited about Leon for the rest of the season. That would be silly. However, I’m fine with him if the Red Sox can’t pull off a deal for Lucroy. Finding catching is hard right now, and Leon looks like someone who can at least be something close to average. If not? Well, hopefully Vazquez or Ryan Hanigan can step up. Eventually Leon’s magic is going to wear off, but based on what we’ve seen in a small sample, missing out on Lucroy might not be riot-worthy.