Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Sandy Leon.
The Question: Can Sandy Leon recapture any of his 2016 magic?
The Red Sox have a few interesting storylines to watch in camp this year, but there may be nothing more intriguing than the battle going on behind the plate. Blake Swihart is stealing the hearts and minds of Red Sox fans everywhere with his hot start, and is being tested as a multi-positional super utility player. Christian Vazquez had something of a breakout in 2017 and is in as safe a position as he’s been in his career as the presumed starter to start the year. Then, there’s Sandy Leon, who by all accounts has the blessing of the coaching staff and looks likely to make the team. As of this writing, it appears that the plan is to keep all three of these guys and work things out from there, but there are going to be tough roster decisions to make and nothing is final to this point. The plan to keep all three could prove tougher, particularly is Swihart keeps raking. Leon has moved into the position of being the most likely odd man out of this trio, and the Red Sox need to be wondering whether or not he can bring back any of the magic he graced us with back in 2016.
Let’s travel back to 2016, when the Red Sox had gone three years without a playoff appearance and Leon was essentially a complete unknown. The catcher came aboard in the first week of June, and over his first 44 games and 153 plate appearances he raked to the tune of a .382/.437/.654 line. He’d cool off a bit after that, but he still finished with a .310/.369/.476 line that rated out as 25 percent better than the league-average hitter (regardless of position) after adjusting for park effects. We all knew he wouldn’t be this outrageously good in 2017, but there was some hope for his offense last year. It didn’t really work out that way, though, hitting just .225/.290/.354, 33 percent worse than the league-average hitter. That kind of line won’t really work for a second consecutive year, particularly with another viable catcher on the roster.
Before we get into the offense, though, we have to talk about the defense at least a little bit. This is the major reason Leon is still with the team and why other teams around the league would take a chance on him if the Red Sox were to eventually let him go or shop him around. He’s not an elite framer, but Baseball Prospectus has rated him above-average in each of the last two years as well as rating him as one of the premier catchers in terms of controlling the running game. Then, of course, there is the way Leon deals with the pitching staff. Pitchers have clearly grown comfortable with him behind the plate — including Chris Sale, who was paired with Leon in just about every start last year — and there’s currently no way of measuring this as a quantifiable skill. While the offense is the wildcard and could make or break his status on this roster, his defense gives him a nice little floor.
Of course, since the team already has Vazquez in tow defense isn’t quite as important for them. Any catcher at the highest level needs to have some defensive skills and one could argue that offense is of the least important here then any other non-pitching spot on the diamond. That being said, the Red Sox could feel more comfortable than your typical major-league team to lean on offensive production from their backup catcher. If Leon is going to bring that production, it comes down to his power and batting average on balls in play. His plate discipline essentially is what it is at this point, as a league-average walker and someone who strikes out a little more than average.
The power was the most surprising part of that wild 2016 season for Leon, as he posted a .272 Isolated Power (SLG-AVG) in that crazy run to start his season. That regressed heavily as the year went on, though, and he finished with a fairly lackluster (but still solid for a catcher) .167 mark. Last year, he followed that up with a .129 ISO. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see much more of a ceiling here for Leon. He’s more of a spray hitter who hits line drives rather than fly balls. There were certainly be times when he can run into home runs here and there, but expecting double digit homer totals is probably too optimistic. Additionally, he’s not exactly fleet of foot and won’t be legging out many extra base hits. I’d expect the .129 ISO from last season to be the norm.
On the other hand, the BABIP could see some improvement over last season. He finished the 2016 campaign with a ridiculous .392 BABIP, and we all knew that would regress pretty heavily heading into 2017. Sure enough, it dropped by over 100 points as he finished with a .280 mark in 2017. I could very well see him improving that by at least 20 points in the coming year. While his line drive approach isn’t optimal for today’s homer-centric game, it should result in plenty of singles, particularly for someone who used the whole field as often as Leon did in 2017. He doesn’t make enough hard contact or have enough speed to expect him to be a true-talent .330 BABIP hitter or anything, but his approach is one that could see him landing in the .300-.310 range for the next few years.
Ultimately, I think I’m a little higher on Leon than most Red Sox fans at this point, but that doesn’t mean we’ll see another run like 2016 (or anything close to that) again. His defense is always going to be his backbone, but it’s unclear whether a 20-30 point increase in BABIP will be enough to keep him around for the whole season. Whether it’s here or somewhere else, though, Leon is still a quality enough player to hang around in this league for the foreseeable future.