clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

One Big Question: Does the intangible outweigh the tangible for Sandy León?

We know his pros and cons. How to balance them is the hard part.

MLB: ALCS-Boston Red Sox at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Sandy León.

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

The most intriguing question around the Red Sox as camp gets started in full-swing is who will be manning the catcher spots on the roster when Opening Day rolls around. Dave Dombrowski has made clear he plans on dealing one of the three catchers on the 40-man roster before the season starts rather than carrying the trio once again in 2019. All eyes are on this question, and we tackled all potential scenarios early in the offseason, but ultimately it’s a low-stakes question. At the end of the day, while all three players have pros and cons none have shown a hell of a lot at the major-league level to this point in their respective careers.

That said, many people would argue that Sandy León is the most obvious choice to go. It is, frankly, an incredibly fair argument to make. It’s very hard to take major issue with someone taking that side in the argument. That being said, if you were to poll the Red Sox pitching staff the results would not come back in agreement. This is, in essence, the biggest argument in favor of keeping the most veteran catcher of the trio around.

If you look at offense, which is the part of the game for which we have the most and easiest-to-understand statistics and thus is the easiest way to compare players, León is obviously the guy to go. Christian Vázquez hasn’t had much sustained success with the bat, and most of his good periods have been BABIP-aided. Blake Swihart is still showing flashes of his potential with the stick and he’s been the best hitter of these three, but even he hasn’t really been better than average-for-the-position. León, though, is on another level. He was, by wRC+, the worst hitter in baseball last year with at least 250 plate appearances, and it wasn’t particularly close. It’s not hard to argue that that guy should be the one to go.

MLB: World Series-Boston Red Sox at Los Angeles Dodgers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, it’s everywhere besides the offense where León brings his value, and one could certainly make the case that catchers more than any other position should have their offense more or less ignored. Defensively, León is well above-average and is one of the better defensive catchers in the league. All three of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference and Baseball Prospectus rated him well above-average in terms of overall value derived from defense. Baseball Prospectus has him worth more than the other two sites, and they also have the most sophisticated defensive metrics to measure catching. Specifically, they measure pitch framing which accounts for an overwhelming portion of their overall defensive metrics for catchers. By their measure, only six of the 117 catchers from 2018 added more runs with their framing, and half of those six had at least 450 more chances behind the plate. Add in above-average production in blocking pitches and controlling the running game, he is a technically sound catcher and the numbers support it.

Then, there’s the part of catching that we don’t really have a good measure for: Dealing with the pitching staff. That includes everything from calling games to keeping pitchers engaged to calming them down in tough situations. Essentially, it’s just making the pitcher as comfortable and confident as possible, and León excels in this area. Chris Sale told the Boston Globe he never looks at a scouting report because of how much faith he has in his catcher. Rick Porcello called him the best catcher he’s ever thrown to. Teammates will always talk each other up, of course, but the way the pitchers talk about León is above and beyond.

So, back to the question at hand. Is all of that enough to outweigh the fact that he was, again, the worst hitter in baseball by a significant margin last year whose true-talent probably isn’t that much better. Some would point to Catcher ERA to show how much León is worth it. His was 3.28 compared to 3.84 for Vázquez and 5.32 for Swihart. cERA is incredibly misleading, though. In this case, León caught a whole lot of games for the best pitchers while Swihart caught a whole lot of games for the spot starters. Obviously one is going to significantly outproduce the latter. So, let’s take a quick look at how each of the individual starters performed with each catcher in 2018. This still isn’t a perfect measure, but it’s better than a catch-all cERA.

Catcher Comparison

Pitcher OPS w/León OPS w/Vázquez OPS w/Swihart K/BB w/León K/BB w/Vázquez K/BB w/Swihart
Pitcher OPS w/León OPS w/Vázquez OPS w/Swihart K/BB w/León K/BB w/Vázquez K/BB w/Swihart
Chris Sale 0.515 0.569 N/A 8.90 4.21 N/A
David Price 0.587 0.78 N/A 5.25 2.74 N/A
Rick Porcello 0.693 N/A 0.863 4.11 N/A 0.50
Nathan Eovaldi 0.697 0.436 N/A 6.25 3.83 N/A
Eduardo Rodriguez 0.380 0.709 N/A 4.00 3.19 N/A
Brian Johnson 0.713 0.843 0.759 1.55 2.70 2.53
Drew Pomeranz 0.910 0.998 0.773 1.82 1.47 1.42

Again, this is not a perfect measure. There are other factors to pitchers’ performances, and some of the numbers above involve small samples. Blake Swihart with Rick Porcello, for example, happened for exactly one start. That being said, pitchers were generally better when León was behind the plate. Eovaldi and Pomeranz kind of snapped that trend, but they were also the pitchers with the fewest games started with the Red Sox on this list.

How much does it matter? It depends who you ask. If you want to go strictly by the numbers and wonder what a player like León is worth, Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference will both tell you he was worse than a replacement-level player last year. Makes sense given his numbers at the plate! Baseball Prospectus, though, had him being worth 1.1 wins above replacement level. They, remember, have the more sophisticated defensive metrics and also use an offensive metric called DRC+ that rated León much better (but still very bad) than wRC+ and OPS+. Being worth 1.1 wins without even factoring in his intangible effect on the staff in 89 games is certainly nothing to sneeze at.

MLB: World Series-Boston Red Sox at Los Angeles Dodgers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

That’s the argument for him being worth it, but consider that he is only going to be one of two catchers on the roster. His value is tied to making pitchers perform better, but how many of those pitchers will he affect? Is he going to be a personal catcher for two pitchers? That wouldn’t bring a ton of value. Is he going to be the primary guy? That’s a rough bat to have in the lineup for the majority of a season. Plus, in the scenario in which he’s gone, the pitchers are still super talented. The Red Sox rotation is very good regardless of who catches. There could be some marginal decrease in performance, but they should still be good. Plus, the younger catchers and Vázquez in particular have the potential to grow into that kind of special defensive catcher or at least something close. Why not start that process now?

Ultimately, I’ve gone back and forth on this a few times but at this moment in time I think it’s probably worth keeping him around. I also think someone could probably convince me otherwise with the right argument. It’s an interesting question without a clear answer because it involves an important part of the game for which we don’t have convincing measuring tools. The good news about this one is we’ll find out the Red Sox’s answer in relatively short order.