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 Christian Vazquez.
The Question: Can Christian Vazquez find more patience and/or power to offset likely BABIP regression?
We’ve talked a lot about the Red Sox catching situation both here and in other spots around the interweb, as it is one of the most fascinating parts of the Red Sox heading towards the 2018 regular season. There’s plenty of genuine curiosity as to how Alex Cora is going to manage carrying three catchers on his roster, a relatively tall task for a first-year manager. Blake Swihart has taken center stage in these discussions, and Sandy Leon’s future with the team becomes more and more of a question with each passing day and each Swihart double. With all of this talk, though, it seems that Christian Vazquez has become something of a forgotten man. There’s just not much question about what his role is going to be, as the young backstop is coming off his best offensive year in the majors and there’s little doubt he’s the top catcher on the depth chart right now. The defensive baseline gives Vazquez a solidly high floor in overall value, and there was a legitimate step forward at the plate.
Vazquez and Leon had a true job share in 2017, and the former played in 99 games and tallied 345 plate appearances on the year. It was a different kind of Vazquez with the bat in his hand, though, and he finished the year hitting .290/.330/.404, good for a 93 wRC+. That last number means he was seven percent worse than the league-average hitter, and for context the league-average catcher in 2017 posted an 89 wRC+. Of course, there is legitimate doubt about how sustainable the season was, as most of it relied on an empty batting average and that batting average was fueled by success on balls in play. Vazquez posted a .348 batting average on balls in play last season after failing to post a BABIP over .300 in his short major-league career prior to 2017. It seems all but certain that he will see some regression in this area, and we have to wonder whether or not he’ll be able to hit for more power or draw more walks in order to offset that regression.
While power was up throughout baseball in 2017, Vazquez didn’t seem to get those benefits (along with the entire Red Sox roster, to be honest). He hit just five home runs in his 99 games and posted a .114 ISO (SLG-AVG). For context, the league-average hitter in 2017 posted a .171 ISO and the league-average catcher put up a mark of .161. Moving forward, it’s hard to expect much more from the Red Sox catcher. While he wouldn’t be the first late bloomer, there’s not much in his current game to suggest he can take a big stride here. He doesn’t hit a lot of fly balls, instead spraying grounders and line drives. He also doesn’t have big raw power, as he’s never really put up impressive power numbers in the minors and his 6.8 percent flyball-to-home-run ratio last year was a career-high and seven percentage points below league-average. Maybe he can get that ISO up to .125 at its peak, but it will never be a strength.
That leaves plate discipline to be the place Vazquez would have to make up for any BABIP regression. The catcher has shown a solid enough ability to make contact with an 18.6 percent strikeout rate in 2017. That’s not a crazy impressive rate, of course, but it’s easily better than average in today’s environment. Even shaving a point or two off that rate with more experience against high-level pitching would offset a bit of BABIP loss. The real gain has to come from his ability to draw walks, though. He’s coming off a season in which he walked in only five percent of his plate appearances last year, and that needs to improve from a no-power bat without elite contact skills. Unsurprisingly, Vazquez swung at a higher rate of pithes out of the strike zone than average, and looking at his Brooks Baseball page there is a clear pattern. From last year, you can see his zone plot against breaking balls here and his plot against offspeed pitches here. The common theme is an ability to lay off pitches below the zone. If he can find a way to not help pitchers on these offerings it’s possible to see him get up close to an average walk rate around eight percent. That’s no guarantee, of course, but it’s an attainable goal that would go a long way towards stabilizing Vazquez’ offensive profile.
Before we leave, we should circle back to that BABIP, though, and try to figure out just how much of that we should expect him to lose. As a relatively weak hitter without much in the way of speed, he is not your prototypical high-BABIP hitter. That being said, there are reasons for confidence. Specifically, we have that spraying hitting style mentioned above, which takes away from his power but enables him to hit more singles than your typical hitter. Just based on the ol’ eye test, too, Vazquez appeared more able to square the ball up and send it on a line to right field. Expecting another BABIP around .350 is silly, of course, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him settle into the .310-.320 range.
At the end of the day, I’ve become sold on Vazquez as a solid major-league regular, even if he never becomes a star. We haven’t even really mentioned his defense, but it’s elite all around and is what really makes up most of his value. He just needs to do a little bit at the plate, and if he can settle in as an 85-ish wRC+ hitter he can be a longtime starter. To get to that level, he’ll need to make modest improvements in other parts of his game to offset the likely BABIP regression that’s coming his way, but if he can start to lay off the soft stuff he should be able to do enough to make the team comfortable in giving him the majority of the time behind the plate.