Boston’s catching conundrum has reached a laughable level at this point. Maybe it’s not funny to those who thought Christian Vazquez was the catcher of the future (me) or those who so badly wanted Blake Swihart to get a chance (also me). But with the Red Sox putting up historically terrible numbers at the position and Swihart’s agent requesting a trade this week, even I have to admit this is getting kind of funny because if you can’t laugh about it you just might cry.
What is up with Vazquez anyway? Boston was never under the impression that it was getting another Carlton Fisk or Mike Piazza when they drafted Vazquez in 2008, or as he’s developed through the minors. It’s no secret that he was picked for his defensive skills and it was a welcome surprise when he managed to hit .290 last season. During his rise to Boston, he was touted for having “potential to be one of the best defensive catchers in baseball,” per SoxProspects.com. A little over a month into his fourth season with the big-league club, the defensive assessment has proven to be mostly true.
He shows off that rocket arm on a pretty regular basis (despite what I have to say about it on Twitter). He’s definitely shown it off enough to scare opposing baserunners. Since the beginning of the 2016 season, opponents have attempted only 87 stolen bases with Vazquez behind the plate, the second-fewest attempts against the 40 major-league catchers who have caught at least 1,000 innings in that time frame.
And when they do run, there’s a pretty good chance he’s going to throw them out. Prior to the start of the 2018 season, Vazquez had thrown out 42 of 100 baserunners who attempted to steal a base with him behind the plate. That’s a better percentage than every active catcher with at least 1,000 innings played and the best among catchers with at least 200 games played over the last 30 years, according to Boston.com. Great, that’s cool and all. A nice little fun fact that essentially tells us what we already knew: Christian Vazquez is good at defense and has a strong arm. Even if he’s slipped slightly this year - throwing out only three of 11 opposing base stealers - it’s safe to say he’s still one of the better options in the league at his position from a defensive standpoint.
It’s a little easier to stomach the frustrating mental mistakes he makes when you can expect him to contribute at least 20 percent of the time at the plate. I’m not even asking for that much. I’m asking for an on-base percentage north of .230 and maybe, just maybe, a multi-hit effort every once in awhile. He’s not striking out at an alarming rate, but he’s not drawing many walks either, which takes RBI opportunities away from MVP candidate Mookie Betts and the other guys at the top of the order. Of Betts’ 13 home runs this season, 11 have been solo shots. He’s one spot off the league lead in home runs but ranked 23rd in RBI. I don’t think he should be leading off at all, but that’s for another day.
Something has clearly changed from last season when Vazquez posted career highs in just about every offensive category - including batting average (.290), on-base percentage (.330), slugging percentage (.404) and OPS (.735). Granted, it was his first time playing more than 50 games in a season with the big-league club but it was an encouraging sign for Boston’s catcher of the future. My, how things have changed.
Manager Alex Cora is one of the few who doesn’t seem overly concerned with the lack of production at the position and he said that’s related to the fact that the team is still producing runs, according to the Boston Herald. So who needs production from your catcher when everyone else is hitting? Well, that’s not necessarily the case when it comes to the bottom third of the lineup and Vazquez’s offensive issues have probably been exacerbated by their lack of production as a whole. Through 40 games in 2017, Boston’s seven through nine hitters had a combined .251 batting average and an on-base percentage of .300. Through 40 games this season, Nos. 7-9 posted a .202 batting average and on OBP of .261. That part of the lineup has gone hitless in three games so far this season, while they’ve combined for just one hit six times. Not great!
If you’re wondering just how bad things have gotten, Vazquez and Sandy León are headed for the distinguished honor of historically bad. Tony Peña was the last Boston catcher to have more than 200 plate appearances with a batting average below .200. He set that benchmark 25 years ago when he posted a .181 batting average with 347 plate appearances. This year, we may see two catchers join Pena. Lucky us!
Per the Twitter account @RedSoxStats, Vazquez’s average, OBP and slugging percentage were ranked in the bottom 10 in franchise history to this point in the season as of Tuesday. His OPS, which was .435 at the time, is the fifth-worst in franchise history. I guess I just expect a little more from a guy who was basically compared to YADIER MOLINA by an anonymous scout before this season started according to Sports Illustrated.
Vazquez is here to stay and the Red Sox made that clear when they signed him to a three-year contract extension over the offseason. There’s certainly still time for the 27-year-old catcher to figure it out and I don’t think I’m ready to give up hope just yet, but someone has gotta do something soon. I’m not going to pretend that I have some grand solution to solve the issue, but I also don’t have “front office executive” or “manager” listed anywhere in my job title. I’m just a blogger who knows this team isn’t going anywhere with both of these guys putting up these numbers.