The Red Sox haven’t gotten bad production from their catchers in 2017, but it hasn’t always been consistent. To start the season, Christian Vazquez was surprisingly strong with the bat while Sandy Leon was off to a highly disappointing start. As we all know, first impressions last a long time and Vazquez is still the preferred starter behind the plate despite the fact that he’s gotten worse at the plate as the year has gone on. Meanwhile, after the ridiculously slow start, Leon is starting to heat up at the plate, even if nobody is noticing.
We all knew that Leon wasn’t going to repeat his 2016 at the plate when he came back this year, as it was mostly fueled by wildly unsustainable success on balls in play. It wasn’t clear how much regression was going to hit the 28-year-old catcher in 2017, but he had enough room to fall and still be a starting caliber major-league catcher. In April, it looked like he’d found a way to regress to the point of being unplayable. Through the first month of the season, he was hitting just .180/.196/.280, a line that was 86 percent worse than league-average per wRC+.
That made people understandably skeptical about whether or not he’d even make it through the season on the major-league roster. Since then, though, Leon has been quietly fantastic at the plate. In 115 plate appearances since May 1, the backstop is hitting .279/.333/.442. For context, the average catcher in baseball this year is hitting .246/.314/.406. Relative to the league-average hitter regardless of position, Leon has been safely above average since May 1 and was better than average in both the month of May and the month of June. Meanwhile, the average catcher has been 11 percent worse than the league-average hitter.
Digging a little bit deeper into his performance, Leon is starting to look at lot like the guy who took Fenway by storm with his amazing summer in 2016. After spending the month of April as a contact-oriented hitter who consistently made weak contact, he has been striking out more but also walking more and making much better contact. According to Fangraphs, he hit line drives under 20 percent of the time in April. Since then, he finished May with a 34 percent line drive rate and a rate of 28 percent in June. Line drives were what fueled much of his success in 2016, and that he’s hitting them again as the weather heats up bodes well for his performance moving forward.
In addition to the better batted ball profile over the last couple of months, Leon is showing off much better plate discipline despite his rising strikeout rate. In April, he walked in fewer than three percent of his plate appearances, but he’s brought that rate back up to eight percent in the months since. As it turns out, he hasn’t been any more patient during this improved run at the plate. Instead, he’s simply swinging at better pitches to hit. That is still going to result in swings and misses which will then lead to a less-than-ideal strikeout rate, but the amount of solid contact it results in more than cancels out the strikeouts. You can see below a side-by-side comparison of the pitches Leon is swinging at in April compared to in May and June.
I’m still not entirely sure what to expect from Leon as the year goes on, nor am I sure how I would handle the catching situation right now. It seems as if every time you think you have things figured out, things take a turn. There’s also defense to consider, and while both players have strong reputations behind the plate Leon’s receiving skills and pitch-blocking abilities have appeared less-than-ideal to my untrained eyes. Despite all that, I think I’d try to work in a little more playing time for the former National right now, as he’s been fantastic at the plate. Part of the reason the Red Sox have been playing so well of late is that they are finally getting production from the bottom of the lineup. With the way he’s hitting right now, Leon is the most likely catcher to make sure that trend continues.