Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Sandy Leon.
The Question: How much of the hard contact from 2016 can Sandy Leon carry into 2017?
Well, we’re done with the pitching portion of the 40-man roster and are on to the position players. It’s only fitting that we start off with one of the most interesting players in Boston’s lineup. Among all the wonderful things during the 2016 season for the Red Sox, Leon’s magical run through the summer tops my list. His offensive explosion came out of nowhere, and it provided unbridled excitement on a near-daily basis. Looking ahead to the coming season, he likely did enough last year to earn the starting catching role for Boston. Even if that’s the case, he probably won’t get as much playing time as your typical starting backstop, but he’ll start the year with the bulk of the playing time. It’s understood by just about everyone that he’s going to be worse than he was in 2016, but everyone is wondering just how much of that performance he’ll carry over into 2017. It all comes down to the contact.
Before we get into that, it’s worth remembering who Leon was before he became immortal last year. Prior to joining the Red Sox in 2015, the switch hitter spent his entire career in the Nationals organization. He never found himself on top prospect lists, but he wasn’t an entirely written off prospect, either. After making his way through the minors with decent-to-good numbers at the plate, he was a disaster in the majors. Prior to last season, he’d received 235 plate appearances with a paltry 33 OPS+.
And then, last year happened. Over the entire season, Leon came to the plate 283 times and hit .310/.369/.476 for a 120 OPS+. He was perfectly fine in terms of strikeouts and walks, with rates of 23.3 percent and 8.1 percent, respectively. As I alluded to above, the real reason for his shocking success was his consistent ability to square the ball, and it showed in his batted ball-based numbers. To wit, he finished the year with a solid .167 Isolated Power and an amazing .392 batting average on balls in play.
Like I said, that’s going to come down. I know it, you know it, the Red Sox know it, and Leon probably knows it. Nobody can keep up a .392 BABIP, particularly when they run like Leon. That is to say, not well. On the other hand, his power and batted ball luck were sort of backed up by the numbers.
His ISO was built more on doubles and triples than home runs, and his home run to fly ball ratio was right in line with the league-average. Even if you contend that he doesn’t have league average raw power (which is probably fair), that shouldn’t come down too much. On top of that, his two triples (which would prorate to four over 600 plate appearances) will probably turn to doubles thanks to his aforementioned lack of speed. All told, he can probably maintain a .140-.150 ISO, which is right around average for a catcher.
His BABIP is what’s more interesting in my mind, though. The two components that go into maintaining a high BABIP are speed and contact quality. Leon excelled in the latter category, at least if you judge by batted ball types. According to both Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus, Leon ranked among the top 50 in line drive rate among the 307 players who received at least 250 plate appearances. He was all the way up to 31st on Fangraphs’ leaderboard, and tied with Paul Goldschmidt. That’s pretty nice company.
To figure out how much of that was real and how much was just a player getting crazy hot, it will serve us well to look at the two halves of Leon’s season. While he was on another planet for most of the summer, he cooled off in a big way towards the end of the year. By OPS, his season peaked on August 18, at which point he owned a 1.091 OPS. After that date, he owned a terrible .561 OPS that is more in line with what most of us expect out him. So, what changed?
Well, for one thing, his quality of contact didn’t change as much or in the ways one might think. In fact, even through this bad period he had a .321 BABIP. That was thanks to the fact that his line drive rate stayed essentially even before and after August 18. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he saw his ground ball rate increase by nine percentage points after that date, climbing up to 49 percent.
A big reason is that pitchers started treating Leon more like a legitimate hitter and less like a black hole as he was previously perceived. More specifically, he started seeing fewer fastballs and more breaking balls. Per Brooks Baseball, opponents’ fastball usage went from 85 percent before August 18 all the way down to 66 percent after that date. Leon hit breaking balls into the ground over 55 percent of the time in both halves of his season, so it was clearly a good adjustment by the pitchers.
Despite that adjustment, which clearly came as bad news for the now-27-year-old catcher, there is still one more reason for optimism. According to hitting coach Chili Davis, there was a mechanical adjustment that acted as a catalyst. That whole story from September is worth the read, but here’s the money quote.
“We got him to stand taller and use his hands more,” said hitting coach Chili Davis. “He was making up his mind to pull every pitch ahead of time. He trusts his hands now.”
There are a lot of important players to watch on the Red Sox in 2017, but none are more interesting to me than Leon. Yes, he’s going to regress, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be unplayable. He was able to excel in 2016 because of a line drive approach that led to singles and doubles, and that was sustained even through his rough ending to the year. The most important thing to look for is if he can adjust to what pitchers did to him at the end of the year. If he can stop pounding non-fastballs into the ground, he should be able to keep enough of his power and BABIP to be a fine starting catcher. If not, well, we’ll always have the Summer of ‘16.