The Red Sox need a backup catcher. Granted, they need a whole lot of things just to fill out their roster with legitimate major leaguers in roles to which they are suited, but among those needs is behind the plate. It goes without saying that the quest for a backup catcher is not exactly the most exciting thing going on with the Red Sox right now. That’s true whenever you’re talking about any backup catcher, but especially so for Boston a year after they found a catcher with whom they are comfortable giving the bulk of the playing time. This isn’t — or at least we don’t expect it to be — one of the increasingly common situations in which two catchers more or less evenly split the playing time. Vázquez is the starter. Whoever comes in will be the backup. There’s not likely to be a lot of gray area here.
That is, of course, not to say this position is not important, however, Even catchers like Vázquez will get significantly more time off than regulars at any other position. J.T. Realmuto played the most catcher in baseball last season and his 1139 innings behind the dish works out to about 127 games. That leaves 35 games to fill in for the team who leaned most heavily on their starter. Vázquez played 102 games behind the plate, leaving a whopping 60 games to be filled in. On top of all of this, catchers are also most open to injury among all non-pitcher positions on the diamond.
So, I’m interested in this pursuit for the Red Sox even if it is not the most important part of the offseason. I’m particularly interested to see what direction they go in with their search. The fact is they won’t get an all-around catcher for their backup. If someone can both hit and play good defense behind the plate, they are not only a starter but one of the best at his position in the game. Now, I think they’ll certainly want a better offensive catcher than Sandy León of the last few years, but there’s a lot of room between that and good offensive catcher. Let’s take a look at both sides of his false binary I’ve created.
The case for going after a defensive-oriented catcher is fairly straight-forward. One could argue — I would argue, in fact — that catcher is the most important non-pitcher position on the diamond. They are involved far more than any other position, with everything from game-management to pitch framing to blocking pitches in the dirt to controlling the running game having massive impacts on each and every game. With the emergence of pitch framing data, most notably from Baseball Prospectus, the public now has an idea of just how valuable these players can be.
There’s also the idea that even an offensive-oriented catcher isn’t going to give that much offense. Of the 68 catchers who got at least 100 plate appearances last year, only 20 were above-average at the plate by wRC+. Of course, most of those were starters, too. The league-average wRC+ for catcher was 85 this past season. An offensive-oriented backup is probably going to be somewhere in the 90s by wRC+. That’s better than the alternative, but is it worth giving up some of that aforementioned valuable defense?
That could be a particularly compelling point for the Red Sox specifically. Based on last season at least, this is a team skewed pretty heavily toward their lineup. They have good hitters throughout the offense while their pitching may need all the help they can get. As we mentioned, no position (other than pitcher) has more of an effect on run prevention than catcher. For a team like the Red Sox who could be desperate for run prevention measures, catcher defense being a priority has a hell of a case.
I’m becoming increasingly intrigued by going in the other direction, though. I’m going to use two cliches to make this case, and I’m sorry in advance. The first is the idea of a ying to a yang. Vázquez is the defensive catcher. He took a step forward with his bat in 2019 and there’s certainly no reason to think he can’t keep up something along the lines of that pace in 2020 as well. His defense remains the calling card, too, particularly if he gets more consistent on pitches in the dirt. With a defensive catcher getting the bulk of the time, maybe you want to mix it up and have the ability to inject some offense here and there when the team needs it. Having that extra bat off the bench doesn’t hurt either.
There is also the idea of zigging when the rest of the league is zagging. As I said, with the influx of catching data hitting the public sphere, it is certain that teams have even more complex data at this point. As such, defense behind the plate is being valued more than ever around the league. There’s an argument to be made that an inefficiency is there to be exploited with average-at-best defensive catchers, and the Brewers may have paved the way here. Long one of the teams who seemingly most valued catcher defense, they recently traded for Omar Narváez, a really good hitter whose defense is shaky. They didn’t have to give up much for him, though. If a smart team like the Brewers who have long valued this position are going in that direction, perhaps the value is starting to tip in the other direction.
One can also piggyback off the idea that the Red Sox specifically need help in run prevention. The other side of that coin is that they had strong defense from both catchers in 2019 and their pitching was still a mess. Perhaps they should just say screw it, the pitching will be what it will be. Perhaps the best way to counteract whatever that pitcher performance is would just be to put all your focus on scoring a whole buttload of runs.
In the abstract, I’m intrigued by the offensive side of this, mostly because the Brewers going in that direction really raised my eyebrows. That said, I suspect Chaim Bloom, given his history in Tampa Bay, probably prefers the former. Of course, we’re not dealing in the abstract. Boston isn’t targeting types but rather actual players. So, to put a little more context into this we’ll call the defensive group the one that includes guys like Martín Maldonado, René Rivera and Kevin Plawecki. The offensive group would be Francisco Cervelli, Robinson Chirinos and Josh Phegley.
Like I said, this is not the most consequential decision the Red Sox will make this winter. It is more likely far down on that list. Wherever it may rank, though, it will have an impact on the 2020 season, and I’ve become interested in this false binary I’ve created. It’s not as simple as I laid out, but the basic idea exists. And with our general lack of knowledge regarding Bloom’s approach, I’m weirdly fascinated to see in what direction he goes.