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Sandy Leon Has a Chance to Cement Himself as the Starting Catcher

Beware, this article has a lot of numbers. Mostly K/9, BB/9, and ERA. Any more, and I’d be calculating for days. I do not feel like calculating for days. Yet.

Boston Red Sox v Kansas City Royals
Sandy Leon has arguably been the best catcher on the staff. Now he has a long term chance to prove it.
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

So, Christian Vazquez is on the disabled list with a fractured pinky. That’s not great!

As you may also be aware, Saturday night, David Price was not great against the Royals. While he’s generally been good against non-Yankees teams since coming to the Red Sox (had a 3.35 ERA against non-Yankees lineups since 2016), the struggles against the Royals raised the question of what was wrong with David Price.

I got curious too, so dove into numbers to try and isolate what factor may have been to blame. One of the first things I came to shocked me, and it left me wondering if there were wider scale implications for the Red Sox roster.

Christian Vazquez caught David Price that night. As you may have noticed Price was shaking him off all night. Vazquez has caught Price in every outing butone this season (the sole exception was the May 17th complete game, which featured Sandy Leon behind the plate). To this point, you could easily make the argument that his 2018 season has been the worst of his career, and I’m not entirely sure I’d argue it with you. The only season that really comes close is his 2008 rookie season. Against non-Yankees opponents, Price has been decent (3.31 ERA this season, entering last night’s contest), but that’s not the point of this argument, and is a topic for another post.

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees
David Price was not great last night. More alarming, was he was not great against a non-Yankees team. Against teams like that, he’s typically very good.
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

It got me wondering: how has Price done for his time here with each of Leon and Vazquez?

Actually, now that I think of it, how have our other projected starting pitchers done with the two catchers? We’re about to potentially see a month of Sandy Leon catching our guys, unless or until a new plan comes about.

The numbers were interesting, to say the least. Vazquez caught Price to a tune of a 4.32 ERA, with 2.71 BB/9, and 9.22 K/9. With Leon, those numbers became 3.09, 1.43, and 8.07, respectively. Leon caught 119.1 Price innings. Vazquez has caught 262.2. It’s worth nothing for this and the rest of the numbers that follow that pitcher/catcher numbers can be misleading — there are a lot of factors at play for any given outing beyond the battery — but the numbers surely tell a story.

With pitchers, having confidence in your catcher is key, and it’s important to have a solid relationship between your pitchers and your catchers in order to have the best chance of winning. When a pitcher (i.e. Price) is shaking off a catcher (i.e. Vazquez) and the pitcher gets hit, you can do nothing but shake your head and sigh.

Chris Sale has been with the Sox since the 2017 season, in that time, Leon has caught 291 innings, and Vazquez has caught 45.1. There’s a small sample with which to work, but for the sake of this article, we’ll at least investigate it to the barest extent. With Vazquez, his numbers are as follows: ERA - 3.38, BB/9 - 2.78, K/9 - 10.92. With Leon: 2.60 ERA, 1.83 BB/9, and 13.27 K/9. While Vazquez hasn’t caught Sale much, it doesn’t seem like there’s a need to further test it out, since he’s been an elite arm with Leon and has put up superior numbers.

Boston Red Sox v Kansas City Royals
Chris Sale is going to be great, regardless of who you put behind the plate.
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Rick Porcello is the longest tenured arm in this discussion, and thus, should have the most experience with both catchers. Leon has caught 407.2 innings of Rick Porcello. Vazquez has only caught 134.1, and not a single inning since last season. How do they stack up? Leon’s numbers - 3.93 ERA, 1.66 BB/9, 8.06 K/9. Vazquez’s numbers - 4.15 ERA, 2.28 BB/9, 7.84 K/9. This would seem to be another point in Sandy Leon’s favor. However, it’s worth noting that Leon has caught Porcello across 4 seasons, whereas Vazquez has only caught him in two (and not once this year, the year that probably matters most).

The fourth pitcher on the docket is Eduardo Rodriguez, and arguably, he’s the most important of the five pitchers I’m looking at, as he’s got more years of team control remaining than any pitcher other than perhaps David Price (who may opt out after this season, but probably will not). Rodriguez has been around almost as long as Porcello, but came around for his first start in May of 2015. Vazquez has caught Rodriguez in 252 innings, Leon has only caught 87 (it’s worth noting, but Leon only caught one inning of E-Rod last year, and not once this season). The numbers? For Vazquez - 4.11 ERA, 3.18 BB/9, 9.75 K/9. Leon, on the other hand, has a 4.55 ERA, 3.10 BB/9, 8.17 K/9. This one is squarely in Vazquez’s favor, but may warrant a closer look, later. Leon hasn’t caught significant E-Rod innings since 2016, and may be better with him now.

Drew Pomeranz is the last pitcher we have much in the way of a sample with. So fittingly, he’ll be the last name we discuss tonight. Pomeranz is a free agent at the end of 2018, and is currently injured. He might not throw another meaningful inning for the Red Sox, for all we know. Even so, the numbers need to be looked at. Leon has caught 35 innings (welp, this doesn’t bode well for any kind of sample), and Vazquez has caught 195.2. Vazquez has an ERA of 3.63 with him, a BB/9 of 3.86, and K/9 of 9.20. Leon’s numbers (albeit a small sample) has him at 6.69 ERA, 3.34 BB/9, and 7.97 K/9.

Steven Wright may also be a factor, but as many will recall, Tim Wakefield needed Doug Mirabelli (an otherwise unspectacular catcher) to be his personal catcher. Knuckleball pitchers exist in their own little bubble, and thus, so too, do knuckleball catchers. Of the two catchers on the roster, Vazquez has done a notably better job of catching Wright. I see no reason for that to change, and regardless of what the Red Sox do, I believe both Leon and Vazquez should stay on the roster, unless an acquisition comes aboard.

Seattle Mariners v Boston Red Sox
All bets are off with knuckleballers.
Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

On the whole, I would suggest that Leon does a better job of handling the top pitchers on the staff, Chris Sale, David Price, and Rick Porcello. Further, I would suggest that Vazquez should be Drew Pomeranz and Steven Wright’s personal catchers, once/if they get back. The big question comes down to Eduardo Rodriguez. Presently, stats suggest he’s probably better with Vazquez, but it’s hard to draw a conclusion, when Leon has not caught him in significant innings since 2016.

With Christian Vazquez presumably on the shelf for a while (I’ve seen estimates that say he could be out as long as an entire month), and likely not 100% for a couple months, we have to determine a course of action. The Red Sox could trade for a backstop, this much is true, but it could be costly. They could also just let Leon handle things, but that may be costly in a different sense, if he falters. What do you think the Sox should do?