Spring training has been going on for what seems like forever at this point (seriously, can the regular season just start already?), but there haven’t really been any major storylines based on Grapefruit League performance. Sure, there have been guys like Sam Travis and Marco Hernandez who have lit the world on fire, but outside factors are possibly (likely in Travis’ case) going to leave them off the Opening Day roster. Sure, Pablo Sandoval has been encouraging, but it’s not like he’s been notably good or anything. He’s just been fine. Then, there are the injuries on the pitching staff, which are a legitimate and noteworthy story. Those don’t have anything to do with the performance, though. What’s missing are guys who are just straight-up playing poorly. The closest to that is Sandy Leon, and it’s starting to worry some people.
Through Tuesday’s action, Boston’s presumed starting catcher has played in nine games and come to the plate 24 times. In that time, he’s hit just .261/.292/.261. What that means — his average and slugging percentage being the same, that is — is that he hasn’t had an extra-base hits. That’s...not great. It’s particularly not great for a player who has just one strong run through his career and has plenty of doubters heading into the season. A strong spring would’ve kept some of those people off his back for the start of the year, but now he’ll be watched closely. Despite all that, anyone who is getting overly concerned about this performance is probably just worrying for the sake of worrying.
First of all, it isn’t like Leon lit the world on fire last spring to build up to his amazing run through the summer. In the same number of plate appearances, he hit .273/.320/.364. Clearly, that is better than what he’s done this year, but it’s still only a .684 OPS. It’s not as if we saw that performance and were prepared for what was going to happen next. There has been new research that suggests spring training stats might matter a bit more than we previously believed, but we still have enough evidence to know it’s far from the end of the world if a player doesn’t hit well.
Now is the part where I mention the obvious. This poor stretch from Leon has come in just 24 plate appearances. That’s about a week’s worth of games, which would never be a sample size in which we worry about a player during the season. The biggest criticism of Leon (and it’s arguably a fair one) is that his hot streak was inflated by luck and a larger sample would show that to be true. That hot streak was 153 plate appearances, or more than six times the number of PA’s he’s received during this supposedly worrisome spring performance.
There’s also the fact that Leon’s expectations for the season really aren’t all that high. I mean, sure, there are probably some people who saw what he did last summer and are expecting a repeat performance. Any reasonable person isn’t expecting anything close to that, though. If things go according to plan, Leon will lean a little more heavily on his defense this year and will be something close to a league-average hitting catcher. That means he’ll be somewhere around 15-20 percent worse than a league-average positionless hitter. That sounds far-fetched based on his pre-2016 track record and his spring performance, but that is entirely possible even with a large amount of regression from his 2016 production.
Finally, it’s important to remember that, in the context of Boston’s offense, Leon isn’t really a super crucial piece. Him being a big hitter would be more of a luxury than a necessity. If he doesn’t hit, the Red Sox should still have a strong lineup. The top six of Boston’s lineup should be phenomenal, and that’s going to carry production. The Mitch Moreland/Chris Young platoon has the makings of a productive duo, too, and Pablo Sandoval has a decent chance at being a reasonably successful hitter. In other words, the Red Sox can afford a lack of offense from the catching position. If Leon does hit well, this could be a special offense. If he doesn’t, it’ll merely be outstanding.
Of course, if Leon doesn’t hit he’ll likely see a significant cut in his playing time. This is bad for the catcher, but it’s another reason not to worry about his spring performance, The Red Sox have an abnormal amount of intriguing depth behind the plate. I mentioned that Leon can lean a bit on his defense, but unfortunately if he’s only doing that the team will simply turn to Christian Vazquez. He’s not likely to add more with the bat than Leon, but he’s a superior defensive player. Like I said, the Red Sox can almost certainly survive an offensive black hole at this position. If they are going to live with that, Vazquez is the guy to go with thanks to the absurd value he provides with the glove. If they want more upside at the plate, they also have Blake Swihart. He has the highest ceiling of any catcher in the organization — and likely higher than most catchers in the game — and while he’ll start the year in Pawtucket he’ll be looming behind Leon.
It’s easy to overreact to spring training numbers, particularly towards this point in camp when we’re right on the cusp of the regular season but still far enough away that Opening Day seems like an abstract concept. While Leon’s slow spring isn’t sparking an outright panic, there are some whispers that this is a concern. The reality is that it’s not. Not only is this happening over an insanely small sample, but he’s just not that crucial of a player in the grand scheme of things. The Red Sox have the pieces — both throughout the rest of the lineup and on their catching depth chart — to still play well if Leon does carry this spring performance into the regular season.