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2019 in Review: Sandy León

A look back at the year that was for the backup catcher.

San Francisco Giants v Boston Red Sox Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images

Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Sandy León.

2019 in one sentence

In 2019 Sandy León was who Sandy León is, which is to say he was a positive influence on the pitching but a non-contributor with the bat in his hand.

The Positives

I think we all know at this point where it begins and ends for Sandy León in terms of what he brings to the table. Outside of that bananas run with the bat in 2016, his value is entirely based on what he does when the other team is at the plate. More and more about catcher defense is quantifiable in this modern era and that has certainly helped guys like León get their due. He’s been one of the better statistical defensive catchers in the game for a long time now in most all areas. Framing is the most valuable skill for catchers — at least until our robot overlords take over — and he is a major positive in that regard. Baseball Prospectus also rates his arm as a net positive. His blocking skills have been a bit less consistent, but still a positive over his career.

It’s not just the quantifiable where León excels, either. In fact, there is a very fair argument that the unquantifiable has been more valuable than things like framing and throwing and blocking. Clearly it’s more difficult to articulate what he does where there are no numbers, but it’s impossible to ignore the praise that has been heaped on him throughout his tenure with Boston. Chris Sale has a clear preference towards him behind the plate. Rick Porcello has called him the best catcher to whom he has ever pitched. There is a way he calls the game and just generally deals with the staff that clearly makes pitchers comfortable and perform well. Admittedly, it can be an easy skill to overrate, since good pitchers are and should be good pitchers regardless of who is behind the plate. At the same time, it is certainly not an attribute that should be dismissed out of hand.

Beyond the defense, there really isn’t many other areas on which we can touch for León in this section, unfortunately. It is worth noting that his swinging strike rate went down to its lowest level since 2016, though as we’ll get to a bit later that didn’t help his strikeout rate. I could also mention he put up an 80 wRC+ at home, which is a solid mark for a catcher. I would also have to follow that up with the fact that it came in an 84-plate appearance sample. I could let you know that his numbers got better as the leverage got higher, but would have to ignore that even his high-leverage wRC+ was only 65. Only one qualified hitter (Orlando Arcia) had a worse overall mark than that this year.

The Negatives

I think I could probably just link to his offensive numbers from [insert statistic website of your choice here], write *gestures at everything* and move on. I would feel like I didn’t get any work done today if I did that, though, so I won’t. I think the best way to show just how anemic León is at the plate would be to tell you he finished 2019 with a 40 wRC+, meaning he was 60 percent worse than the league-average hitter, and then tell you that is a six-point improvement from last season. Going back to the start of the 2017 season, he has a wRC+ of 48, which is worse than all but two of the 387 other players with at least 500 plate appearances in that time. That he was bad at the plate in 2019 was a negative, but not one that came out of nowhere.

If you want to dig a little deeper, we can do that too. Remember when I said his contact rate actually improved over the last couple of years? Despite that improvement, he still struck out in nearly a quarter of his plate appearances. The reason was that he essentially turned into a pitcher-like hitter at the plate, taking more pitches than ever even with opponents throwing more strikes than he’d seen since 2015. Teams were daring him to swing, and he just let pitches go by for called strikes until he had no choice but to swing. In total, 55 percent of León’s plate appearances reached two-strike counts. As one can probably guess, he didn’t really draw many walks either. That’s hardly a surprise given how pitchers were approaching him.

When León did put the ball in play, well, that rarely worked out either. Even in what will likely be known for a long time as the year of the juiced ball, Boston’s backup still managed an ISO of just .105. The average hitter in 2019 finished with an ISO of .183, and even the average catcher managed a .163 mark. He combined the lack of pop with a lack of singles, finishing the year with a .231 batting average on balls in play. Unsurprisingly, León finished well below-average in hard-hit rate (25 percent to 38 percent) and well above average in soft-hit rate (25 percent to 17 percent). To put it more concisely, it’s hard to be more of a glove-only player than Sandy León.

The Big Question

Is Sandy León’s relationship with pitchers enough to keep him around?

It certainly was for 2019. Perhaps the biggest question for the Red Sox roster heading into the year was how they’d deal with their logjam behind the plate with Christian Vázquez, León and Blake Swihart. León beat out Swihart early in the regular season and was able to keep his job for the entire year. Whether or not he’ll be able to stick around for the 2020 season is a different matter, but for this question at hand the answer was yes.

2020 Vision

The future for León is certainly unclear at this point. He is under team control beyond the 2019 season and is on the roster as I write this, but he is a clear non-tender candidate. It’s hard to figure out what the Red Sox are doing in terms of goals for 2020, but León makes more than the league-minimum and he is somewhere between a bit above replacement level to clearly below replacement level depending on how you value all aspects of his defense. With the pitching being such a clear key next year and the lack of a clear replacement coming up through the system, there is a real argument to keep him for 2020. That said, I think the money will win out and they’ll find a new backup — perhaps Juan Centeno again — who will come in for the league minimum or something very close to it.