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 Christian Vázquez.
2019 in One Sentence
Christian Vázquez suddenly looks like one of the most valuable players on the Red Sox (including contract considerations) after emerging as a legitimate threat at the plate in addition to his typically great defense.
Not much drama as to where I’ll start this one off, eh? Christian Vázquez emerging as a power threat in 2019 is one of the most baffling single-season trends I can remember in recent team history. Always an anemic power bat, even in the most optimistic seasons from his time in the minors, Vázquez just suddenly started launching homers. And then he kept doing it, and kept doing it. Of course the juiced ball helped along the way, but even with that he was above-average. The catcher finished with a .201 Isolated Power, with the league average sitting at .183 and the average for backstops coming in at .168. Before this season, he had never finished with an ISO of .114. Further, prior to 2019 Vázquez had a grand total of ten homers in 291 games. In 2019, he finished with 23 homers in 138 games. It’s absurd, and while it happened all year I’m not really sure I ever quite got used to it.
Obviously, with the power being so great (he also hit 26 doubles, tied for second among catchers), the batted ball profile is going to be of some interest here. What really stands out to me is that, while the changes are about what you’d expect, they actually started in 2018 when he finished the year with a 42 wRC+ as one of the worst hitters in all of baseball. In 2019, he started hitting the ball in the air more, started going the other way less in an effort to be less of a slap hitter, and most importantly started hitting the ball hard more consistently.
The big one, with the launch angle revolution fully upon us, is the ground balls, but that was the one that started in 2018. Prior to 2018 he had been above or around 50 percent ground balls his entire career, but then he dropped down to 42 percent last year before going even further down to 39 percent this past year. However, this season 16 percent of his fly balls left the yard (per FanGraphs) compared to just four percent in 2018. Part of that is the juiced ball, of course, and part of it is luck. More important, however, is that he was just hitting the ball harder. The expectation is that a possible reversion back to the non-juiced balls would kill Vázquez, but it might not be as clear as you think. Granted, this is not a foolproof methodology for deciding who will and won’t be hurt by a possible non-juiced ball, but consider Vázquez ranked 136th out of 478 in terms of batted ball distance (per Baseball Savant) in 2019. In 2018, he ranked 292 out of 480.
Beyond the power, Vázquez was stellar behind the plate, just like always. He was a finalist for a Gold Glove, which is now more of a legitimate honor than ever with the statistical component added in. The numbers do back up the performance of Vázquez, who was well above-average in terms of framing value, according to Baseball Prospectus. He also provided a fair amount of value with his arm, which is something we can see from the eye test, too. It is worth mentioning that his blocking skills didn’t grade out as well, and that seemed to jive with what I saw as well. There are times when he gets a little lazy and pokes at balls in the dirt with the glove rather than moving his body in front. The good news is this is not a lack of athleticism, and he’s fully capable of being a strong presence in this area as well.
What’s even more encouraging is that the catcher defense wasn’t the only positive from that side of the ball. As his bat unexpectedly emerged as one you’d like in the lineup as much as possible, Alex Cora got creative. Catchers just don’t play nearly every day, and the Red Sox don’t have an open DH spot most nights with J.D. Martinez. So, Vázquez got some time at first base as well as second base and a handful of mid-game switches to third base. This is big if he repeats the offensive performance, of course, but it also could be beneficial if they decide to target a borderline starting-caliber catcher in free agency. A guy like Vázquez on the depth chart would typically make that a lot more difficult, but if you can show that there will be time at catcher even with Vázquez on the roster you have a larger pool of free agents from which you can pick.
The biggest sign that Vázquez did change his approach — and his swing — this past season even if the batted ball profile changes somewhat started prior to 2019 was that his strikeout rate went up. Always a low-power, high-contact player he started swinging and missing a bunch in 2019. It was a trade-off the Red Sox and Vázquez himself will surely take, but it should be mentioned that he did strike out in 19 percent of his plate appearances. That is still a better-than-average rate, but it is also a four percentage point increase compared to 2018. It should also be mentioned that, while his walk rate did increase it was only up to 6.3 percent.
Many will also point to Vázquez’ second half as reason for concern as they look ahead to 2020. On the surface, it’s a fair point! After putting up a 114 wRC+ in the first half that number dropped to 88 in the second half. Of course, it should first of all be mentioned that 88 is still fine for a catcher! It should also be mentioned that he finished very strong with a 118 wRC+ in September. The real issue was the first few weeks after the All-Star break when he hit a cold snap. Here are his month-by-month wRC+’s: 71, 149, 91, 93, 92, 118. He settled in for most of the year in the low-90s, with one really bad month, one very good one and one outstanding one. If you’re looking at timeframe splits, I would argue the month-by-month numbers are more telling than the half-season ones.
The Big Question
How can Christian Vázquez get back near his 2017 performance at the plate?
Well, we know he easily surpassed that 2017 performance at the plate. In the linked post, I specifically said he would not get to that level with the power, and that if he had a chance at rebounding with the bat it was going to be with increased patience combined with the strong contact rate. Oops!
Vázquez is obviously The Guy behind the plate as the Red Sox look ahead to the 2020 season. There are some questions about what will happen behind him on the depth chart, but the Red Sox are set with their starter. I would certainly expect some regression, but I don’t think it’s going to be quite as far as others are looking for even with the questions about the baseball. My guess is something like a 95 wRC+ with his great defense. That’s not a superstar, but it’s still very good.