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 Christian Vazquez.
The 2017 season for the Red Sox will likely be remembered by all of the players in their lineup that underperformed compared to the expectations. Christian Vazquez was one of the very few hitters who did not fall under this category, as he made a major step forward in his career and is looking like a legitimate regular catcher. I certainly don’t speak for everyone, but I really did not see this coming. Most of the positives for Vazquez this year, understandably, come on the offensive side considering how surprising he was at the plate.
The biggest part of Vazquez’ game is his batting average, and this is more than likely going to be the thing that will carry his offense moving forward as well. Obviously, this is not the most stable way to build a profile, but it didn’t look like a whole lot of luck this year. He made a ton of contact, striking out just 18 percent of the time. That contact was largely good, too, as he hit the ball on a line on a consistent basis and used center and right field more than two-thirds of the time. This isn’t a profile for power, of course, but Vazquez is never really going to be a power hitter so this is the next best thing.
Sticking with the offense for a minute, there were a lot of specific situations in which Vazquez really excelled. For one thing, the catcher dominated at Fenway Park, almost to a weird extent. He came to the plate 167 times at home and hit .348/.395/.510 for a 137 wRC+. Some of this was clearly unsustainable -- he had a batting average on balls in play over .400 at home — but he also was very clearly more comfortable in his home park. Sticking with the splits, he was also much better in the second half after he had settled in as the team’s more trusted catcher, putting up a 115 wRC+ after the All-Star Break. Finally, he was phenomenal in high-leverage spots, posting a 140 wRC+. As I mentioned early in the year, the man only hits clutch home runs. The picture at the top of this post came after a Vazquez walk-off, and is the best Red Sox picture of 2017.
While Vazquez was undergoing this big breakout at the plate, he continued to be an extremely strong presence behind the plate. His reputation has always been of a guy who will let his defense carry him, and that didn’t quite go away this year. He dominated the run game, showing off one of the strongest catcher arms in the game. Additionally, he continued to be among the game’s best pitch framers according to Baseball Prospectus’ metrics. My amateur eyes thought he had some uncharacteristic problems blocking pitches, but BP’s metrics also rated him positively there, so you can choose to believe. Overall, there’s no question he’s a great defensive catcher, and that gives him a huge floor whether this offensive breakout was for real or not.
While this season was largely a giant step forward for Vazquez, there were some rough points in the year. For one thing, while he used a high average to carry him, his power and ability to draw walks still need some work. His .114 Isolated Power was a career-high, and he does play a position that is not known for offense, but that’s still the 30th-lowest mark among the 287 players with at least 300 plate appearances. Additionally, he walked under five percent of the time. Pitchers aren’t too afraid of him, which plays into this, but he needs to find a way to get on base a little more in case he suffers a drop off in batting average.
On top of that, there was one big cold streak for Vazquez this year that went along with a big cold streak for the lineup as a whole. He was quietly a big key for this unit, as he provided some spark from the bottom half of the lineup and put someone on base ahead of the ostensibly bigger bats. In June and July, that wasn’t happening. Specifically, from June 4 through July 24, Vazquez had 97 plate appearances and hit just .154/.206/.198.
The Big Question
How far can Christian Vazquez’ defense carry him?
So, heading into the year I was extremely low on Vazquez’ potential to break out at the plate. In my eyes, the only way he was going to be an everyday catcher was if his defense carried him. As far as this question goes, the answer is pretty damn far. The only reason Vazquez got this chance in the first place is because his defense always gave him a high floor. Now, he is clearly the regular catcher on this roster, and while the offensive breakout certainly helped it also doesn’t look 100 percent sustainable. The glove is still the driving force here.
Looking ahead to 2018
The Red Sox catching situation is fascinating right now, and it’s hard to know how much faith to put in a player who relies so heavily on batting average, even when their process for doing so looks repeatable. We’ll see if Vazquez can come close to repeating his performance next year, but he’s going to get every chance to try as he’ll almost certainly enter 2018 as the team’s primary backstop, and he has an opportunity to lock that job down for the foreseeable future.