The Red Sox roster is mostly uninteresting. Not in a bad way, of course, just in the sense that there aren’t a whole lot of moving pieces. Generally speaking, when everyone is healthy each position on the diamond is filled by a player the organization is comfortable with starting. Obviously, third base doesn’t qualify there, but that’s a story for another day. Today, I want to focus on the catchers.
Right now, the Red Sox don’t really have a problem behind the plate. At least by reputation, they have two very good defensive catchers, and offensively the production they’ve gotten from the position has actually been above-average. Even with that being the case, the combination of Sandy Leon and Christian Vazquez doesn’t lead to a ton of confidence and there is still a question about who should be playing and how often. When you add in the Blake Swihart factor, things get even more messy. So, with that in mind let’s take a look at the three backstops and try to figure out just who they are.
We’ll start with Vazquez, as he’s taken control of the position to this point in the season. Through his first 102 plate appearances, the 26-year-old is hitting .344/.373/.458, good for a 120 wRC+. That is obviously outstanding production for any position, and it’s especially impressive at what has traditionally been the least productive position on the diamond. Of course, it’s not really that simple. As I wrote about just last week, there is likely to be some regression coming Vazquez’ way based on his sky-high .432 batting average on balls in play. Even if he has been playing over his head, though, there are real, encouraging signs within his offensive game. Just by watching him, you can tell he is much more comfortable at the plate. He’s having longer at bats, is fighting off bad pitches and is using the whole field without struggle. The league-average catcher produces a 90 wRC+, and based on the way he has looked this year Vazquez could stay relatively close to that number even as his BABIP starts to drop.
He hasn’t always inspired confidence with the bat, though. Vazquez, of course, came up with a strong reputation on the defensive side of things. His glove was always going to carry him to and through the majors. For the most part, nothing this season has changed that. Over the last couple years the baseball community has started to realize the value of framing, and it is easily the most important part of catcher defense. There, Vazquez thrives. According to Baseball Prospectus’ caching metrics, he has been worth 3.5 runs just from framing pitches this season, which makes him the seventh-most valuable catcher in the league in this regard.
It’s not all about framing, though. While Vazquez clearly has talents in other areas of the defensive game. His arm is still strong even after undergoing Tommy John surgery a couple of years ago, and he has the athleticism required to block pitches behind the plate. There’s also his game-calling ability, which has been lauded by his pitching staff. With all of that being said, he has had some lapses this season. Mostly, they’ve involved throwing errors, but he’s also allowed some balls to pass him that could have been stopped. The good news is that it isn’t an indictment on his talent. Rather, the mistakes have seemingly resulted in him trying to do too much. It doesn’t make it any easier to swallow at the time of the errors, but it provides more hope that he’ll recover from these lapses.
In the end, Vazquez has taken a real step forward this year, even if his offense isn’t going to stay at this level all year. He deserves his current standing as the primary catcher.
As I wrote in the same linked post above in which I mentioned Vazquez’ coming regression, Leon should get better at the plate. If you recall, he had a similar kind of success as Vazquez last season at the plate, proving highly productive in an almost-certainly unsustainable way. This year, he’s come crashing back down to Earth and then some. Over his first 114 plate appearances, he is hitting .224/.272/.374 for a 65 wRC+. To go with it, he’s hit to a .247 BABIP, a number that should rise. It should rise because, according to Fangraphs’ batted ball metrics, he is actually hitting the ball hard at a higher rate than he did last year while also hitting more line drives. At the very least, it’s fair to expect his true-talent BABIP to rise by at least 40 points with the way he’s hitting the ball.
On the other side of things, his defensive reputation is ahead of how he’s actually performed behind the plate. Leon has actually been below-average in terms of framing this year, costing the team a little under a run in 2017. That doesn’t seem too bad, but it places him 50th among the 78 catchers who have caught at least one pitch this season. Additionally, he’s had some trouble blocking pitches, at least anecdotally. The numbers mark him as roughly average here, but there have been multiple instances in which he’s stabbed at the ball rather than putting his body in front of it and it’s caused the pitch to roll to the backstop.
Finally, there is Swihart, who hasn’t played a game in the majors this season. Heading into the season, there was a reasonable argument that he was the most talented catcher in the organization. Unfortunately for him, he was the only one with a minor-league option and the trio was close enough in talent that the option was a deciding factor. While he started in the minors, there was some hope that he’d force his way to the majors at some point this summer. That doesn’t appear to be happening, though.
Swihart has come to the plate 86 times this season, and is hitting just .200/.244/.313. He’s walking less than five percent of the time, striking out at a rate of about 25 percent, and has an Isolated Power of just .113. All of those marks are worse-than-average, and far below expectations for the young catcher. Of course, it’s a small sample due to some time lost to injury, but it still hasn’t been an encouraging start.
The good news is, according to Baseball Prospectus, Swihart has looked good behind the plate. In the past, he’s always been around a neutral asset in terms of pitch framing at every level, with one stint (2015 in the majors) with negative value and one stint (2014 at Double-A) with positive value. This season, he’s back in the positive column, being worth 2.7 framing runs this season despite the small sample.
All things considered, the Red Sox are probably handling their catcher situation correctly for now, although it’s something to keep an eye on. We saw Vazquez struggle on Tuesday night on both sides of the plate, and if that starts to happen more consistently it could be time for Leon to get a chance to regress more towards his batted ball data. Meanwhile, if and when Swihart starts playing to his potential, he could be a replacement if Leon never moves in the right direction. With that being said, I think the most likely scenario in 2017 is that Vazquez holds on to the job as his defense improves, but there are too many moving parts to be sure of anything.