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Christian Vazquez’ strange, very weird season

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It’s been a wild year for the Red Sox catcher.

MLB: New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Overall, the Red Sox catching tandem has been pretty nondescript this season. They’ve stayed healthy all year long (knock on wood) and they’ve put up middle-of-the-road production. Using wRC+ as the measure of choice, Sandy Leon and Christian Vazquez have combined to be the 17th-best offensive catching group in the league. They rank the same in fWAR, which of course takes defense into consideration. So, at least according to Fangraphs, they’ve been very slightly below average as a group. We weren’t really expecting much from this group before the season — particularly if we knew how the year would go for Blake Swihart — so this kind of production is fine. Of course, it hasn’t really been a straight line of decent enough performance from the catchers. It’s been a very strange season, and while Leon’s season hasn’t been a picture of consistency it’s Vazquez’ year that has been particularly wild.

Like the overall production from Boston’s catchers, Vazquez’ overall production has been really solid. He’s come to the plate 254 plate appearances on the year he’s hit .290/.331/.399 for a 90 wRC+. That’s a really good line for a catcher, though it’s boosted by a .344 batting average on balls in play that certainly seems a bit high for a hitter of his ilk. He’s not particularly fast and doesn’t hit a ton of line drives, so I’d expect that number to be much closer to .300. Either way, it’s good production for a player at the worst offensive position in all of baseball. Digging a little deeper, it has been anything but a good, solid year.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Cleveland Indians Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

First and foremost, it’s been a roller coaster of a year for Vazquez. The Red Sox catcher got off to a hot start, hitting .341/.372/.466 through the first two months of the season. It was at this point that he overtook Leon as the preferred option of the duo — though they’ve split playing time fairly evenly on the year — and people were wondering if he was actually coming around on offense. Over the next two months of the season, he hit a major slide in which he hit just .217/.256/.287 and people again began wondering just how much of those first two months were a fluke. Just when we were ready to write him off as a hitter, he’s turned it back on in the month of August by hitting .400/.462/.600. At this point, I’m done trying to figure out who he is as a hitter.

The season has been way up and way down for Vazquez, but there’s one major reason behind his peaks and valleys. Depending on whether he’s at Fenway or literally anywhere else, the Red Sox catcher has been a completely different hitter. I’m not exactly breaking news here, but it’s worth pointing out the home/away splits again if someone hasn’t seen them just yet. At home, Vazquez has been incredible, hitting .381/.426/.558. On the road, he’s been dreadful hitting .208/.242/.256. Baseball-Reference has a stat called tOPS+ that compares a player’s overall offensive production in a certain split to his overall production. According to tOPS+, Vazquez has been the worst road hitter in baseball in 2017 and the best home hitter.

In addition to the offense strangeness, Vazquez has been a bit of an enigma defensively, too. This, of course, is where reputation would say Vazquez earns his money, and though it would be unfair to call him bad he’s been a bit disappointing this year. On the plus side, he’s been a phenomenal framer — and if you believe the numbers that’s far and away the most important part of a catcher’s job — and he’s still showing off a strong arm. That being said, he’s made some questionable decisions this year both in terms of making throws that he probably shouldn’t have made and blocking pitches. Baseball Prospectus ranks him as an average pitch-blocker this year, but it has seemed to me that he’s been stabbing at the ball far too often rather than getting his entire body in front of the ball. Again, he hasn’t been bad defensively, but he hasn’t quite lived up to his expectations.

If we’re being totally honest, I’m not really sure I have an overarching point with this post. I still have no idea what kind of a player Vazquez is. His home/road splits are absurd, and I’m genuinely curious how long this would have to last for a team to try a different kind of platoon based on park rather than handedness. His extreme ups and downs make him less than an ideal candidate for an everyday player. On the other hand, on the whole he’s been a very productive catcher for the Red Sox. Whether or not you think this season has been good for Vazquez, there’s no denying it’s been a strange one.