The Red Sox have had kind of a weird season behind the plate. I mean, it’s been mildly strange all over the diamond, but their catching situation has been particularly confounding. On the one hand, they haven’t really gotten too much offensively. They haven’t been awful, but they’ve been below-average with a combined wRC+ ranking 18th in all of baseball. There have been some flashes of offense from behind the plate all year, but the slumps have outweighed the hot streaks thus far by a pretty fair margin. On the other hand, the defense has been good for the most part, even if there have been some frustrating individual moments. Additionally — and this probably doesn’t get enough play from me or many others — they have been absurdly healthy at the position. Sandy Leon and Christian Vazquez have been on the active roster since day one, and that is just wild. It would be pretty crazy for any position group on the roster, but it’s particularly rare behind the plate.
All of that being said, one half of the tandem is starting to get fairly frustrating. Perhaps Leon has been a frustrating member of the Red Sox lineup all year, and perhaps I’m letting my personal feelings that were built in 2016 get in the way of seeing that he’s been a subpar offensive player essentially all season. Either way, his performance is starting to stand out to me. The catcher and 2016 breakout just hasn’t produced anything at the plate in 2017. With the Red Sox in the midst of a crucial stretch of the season and hopefully participating in the postseason within a month or so, it seems like it could be smart to move on from Leon getting so much playing time. That’s just not a feasible, nor a smart, strategy for Boston.
Before we get into that, though, let’s take a quick look at Leon’s season to date. Through his first 267 plate appearances, the catcher is hitting just .228/.289/.357 for a 66 wRC+. In other words, he’s been 34 percent worse than the league-average hitter. For reference, he is coming off a year in which he put up a 125 wRC+ in roughly the same amount of playing time. We all knew a drop off was coming — particularly thanks to his sky-high .392 batting average on balls in play last year — but this has been steeper than at least I expected. The biggest difference, aside from the BABIP which has fallen down to .278, has been a drop in power and a drop in production against left-handed pitching. Whatever the reasons and whether or not it was predictable, it’s extremely noticeable in a lineup that has had slumps throughout every spot at one time or another.
Despite all that, the Red Sox don’t really have any choice but to continue giving him the same amount of playing time that he’s been receiving for most of the year. Even with his struggles at the plate, Leon is too value with the pitchers he catches to give him extra time off. Specifically, his work with Chris Sale and Doug Fister have just been wildly valuable. I’ve already dedicated an entire post to his work with Sale, and nothing has really changed even if Sale has struggled of late relative to how well he pitched early in the year. There’s absolutely no reason to mess with that tandem. Fister, meanwhile, hasn’t been caught exclusively by Leon, but since this run started on July 31 Vazquez has only caught the righty twice. One was a very good outing against the White Sox and the other was the game against Cleveland in which Fister allowed five runs. Every other game — all of which have been strong — had Leon behind the plate. He doesn’t deserve all of the credit, of course, but you can’t mess with something that’s working this well.
Plus, while his work with specific pitchers is the most important factor here, it’s not the only one. If the Red Sox did decide they wanted to hold off on Leon’s playing time for the rest of the year given his lack of production at the plate, the alternative options wouldn’t be great. Vazquez is surely a better option with the bat right now, and it’s honestly hard to imagine the pitchers being worse with him catching despite the fact that it’s happened a few times this year. However, they can’t really start to play him so much now. Catching is such a grinding position and it wouldn’t make sense to start grinding him down at this point. They should just keep him fresh.
They could also give at bats to Blake Swihart, but that wouldn’t make sense either. As much as we’d all like to see Swihart live up to his potential — and I still believe that there’s some chance he’s the catcher of the future — he hasn’t earned that this year. He’s been mostly bad when he’s been able to play in Triple-A this year, and while that’s almost certainly more due to health than talent, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s happened. If/when the Red Sox clinch they can start to give some playing time to Swihart, but until that point he’s only here on an emergency basis.
The Red Sox could really use more production from every position in their lineup, but it’s probably not going to come from the catching position. At least, not on days when Leon is playing. The catcher hasn’t inspired confidence with the bat this year, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change. Despite that, he’s too valuable to the team and the alternatives aren’t attractive enough to ease up on his playing time. They’re just going to have to find a way to live with his subpar bat.