Welcome to the Red Sox Review series. It’s a fairly standard feature in which we will review the year that was for every player who made a decently large impact on the Red Sox this year. How do I come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players I’m using can be seen here, and if I am missing anyone please let me know in the comments. Anyway, for the players who are included we will wrap up their season in a sentence, look at the positives of their 2018, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2019. Today, we discuss Sandy León.
The Season in a Sentence
Sandy León had a historically bad season at the plate but still managed to be the everyday catcher for most of the season on the best team in franchise history thanks to superlative defense and intangibles.
Looking back at the year that was for Sandy León, it’s really not difficult to write up the positives and negatives. If I wanted to be lazy (which, to be fair, I almost always do) I could just say the positives were everything to do with defense and the negatives were everything to do with offense and call it a day. Essentially, that’s what I’m going to do in a few more words. And when you talk about León’s defense, it starts with the intangibles. If you followed this team all year, you know how much pitchers loved pitching to León. Pretty much every starter who got to throw to him regularly drooled over his ability to call a game and keep a pitcher on his game, with Rick Porcello calling him the best catcher he’s ever thrown to. It’s easy to wave a lot of that away and look at how well they performed in the postseason even after Christian Vazquez had taken over most of the time, and that’s fair! These are good pitchers and they’ll be good throwing to any catcher. At the same time, even if it’s all psychological, there is very real value in the confidence León was able to instill in his pitchers while he was behind the plate.
It wasn’t just that kind of intangible success León showed either. While the confidence he instills in pitchers was certainly the story of his defense, it also sort of overshadows the great technical skills he possesses behind the plate as well. He is an elite defensive catcher regardless of how the pitchers feel. In today’s game, the top skill a catcher can possess is obviously with framing. According to Baseball Prospectus’ metrics, León was contributed more value in terms of framing than all but six catchers in baseball, and he’s been well above-average for two years in a row. León also rated above average in terms of blocking pitches and controlling the running. Catcher is the most important defensive position in the game, and having someone who is an all-around high-level performer in this area is huge.
Somewhat surprisingly, there is one offense-based positive in León’s 2018 season, though it may not be totally unfair to accuse me of reaching for something. There was a (relatively) bright spot in the year for León’s offense right at the start of the summer. For a time, it looked like maybe he could be a useful piece at the bottom of the lineup. From the start of May through the end of June, the veteran played in 25 games and received 86 plate appearances. Obviously, this is a small sample size, but he hit .304/.349/.519 in that span, showing better quality of contact than we’ve seen since his magical and surreal run in 2016. This performance didn’t stick around the rest of the year, to put it kindly, but it did help Boston get through historically strong stretches in the second and third months of the season.
Soooo, yeah. The offense. Even with a strong stretch that lasted a third of the season, León was almost unbelievably bad with the bat over the course of the entire 2018 season. By the end of the regular season, he had a line of just .177/.232/.279, good (bad?) for a 33 wRC+. In other words, he was sixty seven percent worse than the league-average. Among hitters with at least 250 plate appearances, no hitter in baseball was within eight points by wRC+. (And the next-worst hitter was Christian Vazquez, for whatever that’s worth.) He then hit .231/.286/.308 in the postseason over 15 plate appearances, having basically lost the everyday job by that point.
Really, there’s not much else to say here. Any aspect of offense you look at, he was disappointing even relative to low expectations. He walked at a rate lower than league-average for the first time in three years, and did so significantly worse than average. He struck out in more than a quarter of his plate appearances. He just barely cleared the .100 mark in terms of Isolated Power. His batting average on balls in play was at a horrendous .226, which is probably partially due to luck but mostly due to just not being able to make consistently hard contact. At one point in the second half, he went through a 25-game stretch with only three hits. It got to the point where León was just swinging at everything, and pitchers were taking advantage. The Red Sox had a historically great offense and were able to win despite León’s exploits at the plate. That isn’t going to happen most years.
The Big Question
So, uh, no. León’s 2016 was never going to be repeated, as he benefited from a great deal from huge bouts of luck. Still, there was some hope he could recreate enough of that magic to put up a wRC+ at least around the 80-90 range. After what happened in 2018, that hope is all but gone.
The Year Ahead
One of the most interesting storylines of the Red Sox offseason is what will happen with the catching situation. Sandy León is one of three catchers currently on the 40-man roster, and all three are out of minor-league options. It’s unlikely all three will be kept if healthy again this year, so one will be traded this winter. León is a strong candidate given Vazquez’ relatively strong performance in the postseason and Blake Swihart’s upside. Even if León is not kept, he will almost certainly not be given as big of a role after his 2018. With his superb defense and tremendous work with the pitching staff, León will be a boon for whatever team he is on as long as his role doesn’t become too large.