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 Christian Vázquez.
The Question: How can Christian Vázquez get back near his 2017 performance at the plate?
At this point, it seems most agree that pretty much anything can happen with the Red Sox catching situation before Opening Day. That being said, the general consensus appears to be that the battle ultimately comes down to Blake Swihart and Sandy León. That’s not to say Christian Vázquez is a lock to be on the Opening Day roster, but it would be a surprise at this point if he’s the one moved. Whether or not that is the correct decision in your view is an entirely different discussion, of course. Like it or not, chances are Vázquez is going to be in line for the majority of starts behind the plate in 2019.
From the outside, it certainly seems as though defense is the most important consideration for the Red Sox with respect to their catchers, and it makes sense. It’s the most important position on the diamond, and it’s probably not close. For Boston specifically, they have enough talent around the rest of the lineup that they can make up for a lack of offense behind the plate. Obviously that doesn’t mean offense here should be completely ignored, just that it’s more of a secondary concern. Offense is, of course, the big issue with Vázquez and has been for his entire professional career. It’s even more of a question at this point after a brutal year at the plate in which he hit .207/.257/.283 for a 42 wRC+ over 80 games and 269 plate appearances. That is truly abysmal, and really not playable almost regardless of defense.
However, it was only a couple years ago that he was slightly above-average at the plate for a catcher. In 2017, in 99 games and 345 plate appearances — both career-highs — Vázquez hit .290/.330/.404 for a 92 wRC+. For context, the average catcher that year put up an 89 wRC+. As we’ll get to, we’re probably not going to see this version of Vázquez again, but the Red Sox need to figure out how to get him back on that track following the disaster that was 2018.
Going through his skillset at the plate, I think it’s important to mention that he’s never going to be a power hitter. That is the way a lot of the starting catchers around the league — Mike Zunino, Jorge Alfaro, Robinson Chirinos, among others — get around other subpar skillsets, but it’s not who Vázquez is. That 2017 season was his best in the power department as well, and even then he finished with a .114 Isolated Power. The league-average for catchers that year was .161. Maybe, in an ideal world with some luck in hand, he can get that ISO up to .120, but that’s the peak. If your peak is still well below-average for the worst position in the league, it’s probably not a category worth worrying about.
No, Vázuqez is a bit of a throwback in that he relies heavily on batting average and hitting singles to succeed. In 2019, that is clearly not the best way to go about things and it is why his ceiling is so low with the bat. He does have some potential to be solid there, as we saw with that .290 batting average in 2017. Now, a lot of that was based on batting average on balls in play, which we’ll get to, but Vázquez puts the ball in play enough to give him a solid floor in AVG. His strikeout rate has trended down in each of the last couple years, and even in his awful 2018 he struck out only 15 percent of the time. If you put the ball in play as often as he does, you have to really crater in BABIP to not have at least a solid batting average.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened last year, and is the big difference worth looking at between 2017 and 2018. Two years ago, when the catcher looked great at the plate, he finished with a .348 BABIP. Guys like Joey Votto and Mike Trout can maintain BABIPs at that level, but it’s almost certainly above Vázquez’ true-talent level. Last year, he finished the year with a .237 BABIP. That’s an absolutely massive drop, and seems certain to be much worse than his true-talent level. It’s entirely fair to point out is 2017 success was propped up by good luck, but on the flip side it’s only fair to acknowledge the 2018 struggles were brought on by some bad luck.
There are some differences in the batted ball profile to look at, though, and it comes back to the lack of power we talked about. The league as a whole, as you’ve probably heard, is trending more towards fly balls and launch angle. It’s a smart strategy for most players, and one that crept through the Red Sox lineup last year partially thanks to J.D. Martinez. However, Vázquez is one of the players for whom it is not a great idea. He just doesn’t have the raw power to take advantage of fly balls, and instead of leading to power it just leads to more outs. Last year saw his lowest line drive and ground ball rates of his career, per Fangraphs. Those batted ball types lead to fewer extra base hits than fly balls, but they lead to more singles. Again, this is not something that can be said for most hitters in today’s game, but Vázquez should go back towards the old school mentality of spraying line drives and grounders all over the field for singles. The ceiling is certainly limited with this style, but we saw last year what can happen when he tries a more modern approach.
The fact is that Vázquez is probably just not going to be a huge factor at the plate at any point of his career, and I’d be far from shocked if we looked back at 2017 as his peak. That said, he needs to be more than a net negative there like he was in 2018. He’s not going to hit for more power to make up the difference, and he’d need a major adjustment to draw enough walks to get up to an acceptable level. The path back to relevance at the plate for Vázquez is the most risky one: BABIP. It’s impossible to predict on a year-to-year basis, especially after his rollercoaster the last couple of years, but if he wants to maximize his potential to get back above .300 here he needs to go with the old-school, low launch angle approach.