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2017 Red Sox Review: Sandy Leon

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A look back at the last year for the Red Sox backup catcher.

Divisional Round - Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox - Game Three Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Welcome to the Red Sox Review series. It’s a fairly standard feature in which we will review the year that was for every player who made a decently large impact on the Red Sox this year. How do I come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players I’m using can be seen here, and if I am missing anyone please let me know in the comments. Anyway, for the players who are included we will look at the positives of their 2017, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2018. Today, we discuss Sandy Leon.

The Positives

Sandy Leon came into this season as one of the most perplexing players on the Red Sox roster. He was coming off a shockingly strong 2016 that included a red-hot streak that put him on the radar out of nowhere. A lot of that success came on the back of what looked like extreme amounts of good luck, but there was at least some mild hope that he could be serviceable again in 2017. Instead, he was nothing more than a middle-of-the-road backup, at best. It wasn’t a strong year for Leon, but there were some positives for the catcher.

First and foremost among those positive was his relationship with Chris Sale. I think it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how much of the Red Sox ace’s season was due to Leon, because obviously Sale is incredibly talented. He had plenty of success before 2017 when he never had Leon as a catcher, and he’ll undoubtedly have success again when he gets a new catcher. That being said, there was a real relationship between these two, and Leon seemingly always knew the correct pitch to call in every situation. Sale famously doesn’t shake off his catcher, so the ability to call the correct pitch is even more important in this case. I wrote about this relationship earlier in the year, and if we remember Leon’s 2017 for anything it’ll be for his partnership with Sale.

Boston Red Sox v Chicago White Sox Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

That was the big positive from the year, but if we’re just talking about Leon’s season by itself there were some on his own, too. For one thing, he stayed healthy all year. That is much easier said than done for a catcher, and the fact that the Red Sox made it through the entire year with just Leon and Christian Vazquez is remarkable. Beyond that, he also showed off strong defense behind the plate. He is one of the better catchers in baseball in controlling the running game, and he improved his pitch framing by a significant margin according to Baseball Prospectus’ metrics. If we look at him strictly as a backup, defense is generally the most important quality and he graded out very strongly in just about every area.

As far as his year at the plate goes, you have to dig into some of Leon’s splits to find the positives. For the second consecutive year, the Red Sox catcher was very solid against left-handed pitching. Granted, he was otherworldy in 2016 and didn’t live up to that level in 2017, but he was still more than fine considering his position, finishing the year with a 92 wRC+ against southpaws. He also went on a very strong run through May and June, a stretch in which he hit .293/.349/.465 over 31 games and 110 plate appearances. Finally, he stepped up his game with runners in scoring position, which was key for a team that struggled to score runs all year. In these situations he hit for a .273 Isolated Power and 114 wRC+.

The Negatives

Despite the positives listed above, it was overall a negative season for Leon. Over the course of the entire season, he hit just .225/.290/.354 for a 67 wRC+. As I said, there was at least a little bit of hope that he could be a respectable everyday catcher after his wild 2016, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. In terms of plate discipline, he was....fine, though nothing special. His strikeout rate was slightly worse than average, finishing up at 24.6 percent. Meanwhile, he walked at a league-average rate around eight percent. He also took a big step back in terms of power, as his overall ISO fell by 40 points. The biggest area in which he took a step back, though, was general quality of contact. We’ll get to that in a minute, though.

In addition to those overall flaws, there were some smaller issues as well. For one thing, while he was fine against left-handed pitching righties shut down Boston’s backup catcher. In 198 plate appearances against right-handed pitching, he hit just .217/.279/.333 for a 57 wRC+. Most of his strikeouts came against righties, and he failed to hit for any power against them. There was also the inconsistency in all months that weren’t May and June as well as with the bases empty. While he did have some moments where he shined, Leon’s 2017 was mostly negative.

The Big Question

How much of the hard contact from 2016 can Sandy Leon carry into 2017?

So, this was the biggest issue for Leon in 2017, though it wasn’t quite for the reasons one would expect. He was on fire in 2016, with hard contact and luck mixing together to give him a .392 batting average on balls in play. It was clear that this number would come down significantly this year, but if it were to stay respectable and slightly above .300, he could be fine. Instead, it fell to .282, which isn’t a bad mark, but not good enough to keep a hitter like Leon afloat. Oddly enough, though, according to Fangraphs’ batted ball metrics his hard-hit rate only fell by two percentage points from 31 percent to 29 percent. Where he seemed to falter the most was failing to pull the ball as much. In 2016 -- and in 2017, for that matter — most of his success came to his pull side. Pitchers made the right adjustment, though, and forced him to use the whole field more often. That ended up hurting him significantly.

Looking ahead to 2018

Leon is an interesting piece of the Red Sox roster as we look ahead to next year. After what transpired over 2017, it seems pretty clear that Christian Vazquez will be the regular catcher next season. Leon, meanwhile, is arbitration eligible. The money he’ll likely be paid shouldn’t be much of an issue for Boston, but it could be possible that they want a more stable offensive option from their backup. There’s also the matter of Blake Swihart being out of options and presumably in competition for that backup spot. Don’t be surprised to hear Leon’s name in trade talks this winter, though I wouldn’t say it’s at all a sure thing he’ll be elsewhere in 2018.