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Trying to parse the Red Sox catching situation

What do they do behind the plate?

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Every year in every fan base, there is a battle or two among sections of fans that lasts the entire season. For the 2018 Red Sox, you’d think it’d be harmony, but you should know better than that. Perhaps the biggest intra-fanbase battle has been surrounding Blake Swihart and how much you do or do not love him relative to the other catchers on the roster. I’ve found myself on the anti-Swihart side of that debate for most of the year, though I certainly have to admit I’m ranging more and more towards the other side as the season has gone on. For the majority of the season, there has been one guy getting all the praise from the pitchers and standing in Swihart’s way. Then, there’s another guy in the rotation with a great defensive reputation (whether or not he’s lived up to said reputation is another story) and a still-fresh contract extension. That stuff doesn’t matter this time of year — it’s just about putting the best team on the field — but to put it simply there’s a lost to parse with this catching situation. I’m going to try and talk my way through it.

So, we have to start with Sandy León, who continues to be the primary catcher for the best team in baseball despite obvious and glaring frustrations at the plate. Despite the offensive woes, his defense does remain good and his relationship with the pitching staff is akin to that between high school students and the first teacher they have who swears with semi-regularity. That is to say, they love him and they aren’t afraid to share that information. Rick Porcello has called him the best catcher he’s ever thrown to, and pretty much every starter on the pitching staff has mentioned how well he calls a game. That’s important! Even beyond that stuff that we’re not really able to quantify, he’s been a more readily apparent strong defensive backstop as well. He’s been good at blocking pitches and controlling the running game, and it seems like he always makes the smart move when he’s involved with ball in play. That stuff matters.

MLB: Houston Astros at Boston Red Sox Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, defense only goes so far when you’re only a mild upgrade over me with the bat in your hand, which has been the case for León. The 29-year-old has obviously never been a star at the plate (except for that little run in 2016), but he’s taken his subpar performances to another level. On the year, he’s hitting .188/.246/.296 for a 42 wRC+, meaning he’s been 58 percent worse than the league-average hitter. That’s awful. Even worse, over his last 20 games he has three hits and two walks in 54 plate appearances for a .275 OPS. Things are not good, and it’s gotten to the point where he’s essentially treated like a pitcher. On Sunday Night, the ESPN broadcast booth made a passing comment that really stood out to me. Eduardo Núñez got a hit in the middle of that game with two outs, and they pointed out that he at least cleared León’s spot in the lineup. That’s how National League fans talk about the ninth spot in their lineup, and it’s really tough to live with that in an American League lineup.

So, is León’s importance to the pitching staff really so immense that we have to ignore this performance at the plate that shows no signs of slowing down? I honestly don’t have a good answer. I am trying to avoid the appeal-to-authority argument here where you simply say they know what they’re doing and leaving it at that, because if that’s the attitude than what are we even doing here, ya know? But at the same time, they are running away with the best record in baseball and, well, they do know what they’re doing a lot more than me. That’s relevant! On the other hand, these pitchers that are so in love with throwing to León haven’t really been consistently great. Rick Porcello has had plenty of rough outings over the last month or so, and Nathan Eovaldi has definitely been more bad than good after his first couple outings with the team. Is that a sign that León’s impact is overrated, or would it have been even worse with Swihart or Christian Vazquez behind the plate? I have no idea!

In terms of the other options, we have to start with Swihart. He’s been the apple of many fans’ eye for the entire season, and he’s certainly making them feel good about themselves of late. That being said, I think León’s ineptitude at the plate has people thinking Swihart has been better than he really has been, because the 26-year-old really hasn’t been that great since the start of August either. We’re only talking about 19 games and 48 plate appearances, but he’s hitting .213/.229/.277 in that time. That’s...not great. Of course, the counter-argument is that more regular playing time would bring out better performances, and given how well he started hitting after Vazquez’ injury, it’s at least an argument that can’t be dismissed out of hand. As for the defense, it’s been better than I and many others probably expected, and his ability to control the running game in particular has been impressive. Do I have as much faith in his defense as León’s? No, of course not. Is the difference large enough to ignore León’s performance at the plate? Well, that’s where things get more difficult.

Boston Red Sox v Chicago White Sox Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Christian Vazquez also has to be a part of this conversation despite the fact that he seems to be the odd man out in a lot of people’s minds. Alex Cora is still working him into games, and one would guess he’s probably still a part of this team’s long-term plans. Really, though, I’m not sure how he can justifiably work his way into this rotation when the games start counting. His defense hasn’t been as strong as his reputation would suggest and lags behind León’s, and his offense hasn’t been all that much better while also not possessing the upside of Swihart’s bat. I think Vazquez is better than what he’s shown this year and think he could be a decent bet for a bounce-back in 2019, but for now he has to be third on the depth chart.

The more I think about it, the more I think Cora needs to start thinking about shift for the end of the season. He’s used this month as an audition period for other positions, and it makes sense to do it with catchers too. It’s got to at least be a consideration to get these starters throwing to Swihart and see how different things go. If the pitchers really are noticeably different with a new face behind the plate, then you pull the plug now while the games don’t count as much. Best case, the pitchers are still good and the Red Sox have a little more upside at the plate. Of course, they know what they’re doing, and maybe we should just trust them. Right?