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 Christian Vazquez.
The Question: How far can Christian Vazquez’ defense carry him?
Christian Vazquez has been on the map as a Red Sox prospect for what feels like decades, but he’s still yet to put in a full season at the major-league level. A big part of that is the elbow injury that caused him to miss all of 2015, but his lack of production at the plate has hurt him, too. I looked at how he can improve in that area earlier in the offseason, and while it’s possible, it will take a lot. Today, I want to focus on the strong suit in his game.
For as long as he’s been on the map, we’ve been away of Vazquez’ superior ability behind the plate. He’s always been one of the best defensive catchers in professional baseball, and he’s only gotten better and more refined as he’s moved up the ladder. Now, as a 26-year-old, he’s essentially fully matured and is elite. Given how many defensive chances a catcher gets and their huge effects on a team, there’s no question this is the most important defensive position on the diamond. Having a great one is huge for any team. Vazquez personifies the question of just how high an all-glove, no-bat catcher can fly.
No-bat may be a bit harsh with respect to Vazquez, particularly when you consider how little experience he has in the majors, but I mean “all-glove” in as flattering a matter as possible. To see just how great he is in this role, look no further than his framing skills. While pitch framing has always been known as an important part of the game, it was always a more abstract concept that was only judged by scouting reports. While scouts opinions on a catcher’s receiving skills are still important, it’s also a skill that can now be quantified thanks to Baseball Prospectus’ new-ish framing metrics.
If you’re interested in how these numbers work, you can check out their primer here. Meanwhile, let’s just look at how Vazquez rates by these numbers. Hint: It’s very good. Last season, despite getting less than half of the normal workload for a normal catcher, he saved about seven runs just thanks to his framing. For context, that was the sixteenth best total in the majors. That ranking is much more impressive when you consider his lack of playing time, as this is a counting stat rather than a rate stat. He was even better in 2014, when he saved just shy of 14 runs in about the same amount of playing time. That year, he ranked in the top ten in the league. If you don’t buy into the numbers, that’s fine, but every scout out there agrees he’s one of the best framers in baseball.
While framing is the most valuable portion of catching defense -- by a lot — it’s not the only one. Luckily, Vazquez isn’t a one-trick pony. Beyond the framing, he’s also got a cannon for an arm. Back in 2014, he was elite at stopping base stealers, catching 52 percent of would-be swipers. He even added four pickoffs to that. Last year, his rate dropped down some to just 35 percent. It was still above the league average of 29 percent, but it wasn’t nearly as impressive as the previous year. Of course, he was one year removed from Tommy John surgery. It’s possible he’ll never get that arm strength back, but it’s equally as possible he’s still gaining a little strength back. Even so, the worst-case scenario is that he’s merely above-average rather than elite.
When you add these two qualities with the fact that pitchers love to work with Vazquez, you have what is undeniably an elite defensive catcher. Now, the key is to figure out if he’s elite enough to play every day regardless of his bat. To figure that out, we can look at some comps across the league. Surprisingly, his number one comp on Baseball Prospectus is 2012 Jonathan Lucroy. Defensively, it makes sense since they’re both great behind the plate, but Vazquez clearly isn’t up to those offensive standards. It doesn’t really tell us much.
Some other top framers across the league do tell us a little more. There is one catcher who stands out to me as a guy who can play full time despite not being all that great at the plate. That is Jason Castro, who just signed a three-year, $24.5 million deal based almost entirely on his framing. However, while he is similar to Vazquez in terms of framing, he’s a step above in terms of hitting. Over the last few years, he’s been better than a two-win player on BP with the equivalent of an 84 OPS+. That’s 20 points better than Vazquez’ career mark. Even if you give Vazquez more leash for being a little better all-around as a defender, there’s ground to make up.
The downside of Vazquez’ comps would be Jeff Mathis (did you know he’s still playing?) and Rene Rivera. Both of these guys are great defensively, but they are similar to Vazquez with the bat. Rivera’s career OPS+ is about the same, and Mathis is about ten points worse. Both are still better than replacement level when you add in the framing value, but they are better suited for backup roles than everyday ones.
Obviously, these types of discussions depend on context, and the Red Sox are likely more able to put up with a poor offensive catcher than most teams. With that being said, Vazquez as he is now is likely just short of being an everyday asset. His defense is undoubtedly elite, but he’ll have to take that next step forward at the plate to be relied upon as a starting catcher. Luckily, he’s still just 26 and by all accounts has the work ethic to take that step.