When Blake Swihart was designated for assignment and the Red Sox’ catching situation was once again under a microscope, a lot of the discussion turned back to figuring out what the actual best duo would be. Many argued, and it was a fair argument, that in a vacuum the best pairing would have actually been Sandy León and Swihart. The latter would have given the team some perceived offensive upside as well as rare positional versatility for a catcher. León provides almost no upside at the plate, but is elite defensively and the pitchers love him. It seemed like the perfect yin and yang. Meanwhile, Christian Vázquez was sort of in the middle of both in both areas while also coming off a truly terrible 2018 regular season. His stock was at its lowest, and the case was clearly there to be made that he should be off the roster.
Of course, in reality this was never a realistic option after the Red Sox gave Vázquez a three-year extension that began this season with a fourth-year team option, signed at the start of last season. The deal was worth only $13.55 million, so it’s not like they gave him a huge commitment, but they were always going to stick with him. We’re not even into May right now, so obviously nothing that has happened this season is going to continue for the rest of the year. That being said, Vázquez is showing us over this most recent stretch why the Red Sox wanted him for the foreseeable future. The catcher is on a roll right now and it’s showing both behind the dish and with the bat in his hand.
We’ll start with the offense, which has obviously always been the big question with Vázquez. Last season, he was the second worst hitter in all of baseball among the 313 players who received at least 250 plate appearances. Not great! I don’t think anyone thought he’d continue to be that bad, if for no other reason than the fact it seems impossible for any major-league player to be that bad for multiple seasons in a row. This season, he’s looking better. Granted, his .222/.265/.460 (78 wRC+) line doesn’t really look great, but part of that was a very slow start and the other is that he is having some unfortunate luck on balls in play. He currently owns a .217 batting average on balls in play, which is even lower than last year. There’s a lot that goes into BABIPs early in the year, and part of it is that hitting a lot of home runs will actually hurt your BABIP, particularly in smaller samples. Still, the way he’s hitting the ball suggests he should be doing better than this.
In fact, that batted ball profile is what stands out the most when watching Vázquez. I have made the case many times that he should just go all-in on an old-school approach where he tries to spray line drives for singles rather than focusing on power. He still does that sometimes, and his ability to do so is why Alex Cora likes calling hit-and-runs when his catcher is at the plate. However, he’s also changing his batted ball approach to strong results. Right now, according to Fangraphs’ early-season batted ball numbers, he is hitting ground balls just 38 percent of the time and line drives just 18 percent of the time, both of which are career-lows.
The flip side, obviously, is that his fly ball rate is way up and his power is right there with it. It should be mentioned that the line between line drives and fly balls can be very vague, but the main takeaway is that he’s hitting the ball in the air more. The result has been four home runs, already one off his career-high, and a .238 Isolated Power. That pace is not going to stay, but he is crushing the ball right now with a 38 percent hard-hit rate and just a 10-percent soft-hit rate. Those numbers aren’t necessarily predictive, of course, but for right now it’s resulting in that flyball approach proving to be a smart one. In retrospect, the fact that all of his career home runs were seemingly moonshots should have been an indication that perhaps he has more power than I credited him for.
One reason Vázquez may be producing such quality contact could possibly be found with his plate discipline. Now, the catcher has never been one to draw walks, as his current 5.9 percent rate would be a career-high. That is, of course, still well below the league-average. Don’t confuse that for an overly aggressive approach, though. Early on in this 2019 season, he has cut his swing rate on pitches out of the zone all the way down to 22 percent, down nearly 13 percentage points from 2018. In other words, he’s been much more likely to wait for a pitch to hit this season, and he’s clearly making the most of those swings. This has resulted in a few more strikeouts, but I’m sure the Red Sox will gladly take that trade-off.
None of this even includes his defense, which has been disappointing at times but is still well above average. If you ask most analysts around the league, they’ll tell you the most important aspect of catcher defense is framing pitches, a skill at which Vázquez excels. He always has graded out extremely well in this area and is among the best in the league yet again this season. He’s also showing off his arm — case-in-point: That game-winning back pick — with more confidence as time goes on. I have been a little disappointed in some of his attempts to block pitches in the zone, but overall he’s been a positive defensively, and with his framing prowess it’s positive by a large degree.
A hot streak with the bat on April 25 is not a sure sign that Vázquez is going to continue to produce moving forward, of course. We’ve seen much more bad than good from him, and track record still counts a lot more than recent performance. That said, he is employing a different approach both with the pitches he’s attacking and the way he’s hitting the ball when he does attack. Is Vázquez going to be an All-Star caliber bat? Almost certainly not. However, remember that the league-average catcher put up an 84 wRC+ last year, which is just a bit of BABIP regression away from this being his current line. The Red Sox don’t need Vázquez to be J.T. Realmuto or prime Buster Posey. They simply need him to not be a total zero and provide some sort of presence at the bottom of the lineup. He’s doing exactly that right now, and there are some trends that suggest it may continue with a new approach.