Welcome to our 2020 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 2020. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player. 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 2021 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we take a look at the 2020 season for Christian Vázquez.
2020 in one sentence
Fresh off his breakout year at the plate in 2019, Christian Vázquez came back in 2020 and put together an even better offensive season and solidified his standing as a top five catcher in the game.
Although, to me at least, it didn’t really feel like Vázquez was building off his 2019 for an even better season this past summer, by the numbers it was indeed better. After putting up a 102 wRC+ in 2019, he finished 2020 with a 115 mark, putting him just ahead of hitters like Joey Votto and Cody Bellinger. Obviously the small sample of the season has to be mentioned, but the overall performance from Vázquez was outstanding and easily the best of his career.
And the biggest driver of his success was his batting average on balls in play. This actually doesn’t always read like a positive, as BABIP is often associated with sheer luck. And that is partially true, particularly in a shortened season like 2020. But it’s over-simplistic to just call it luck and move on. In Vázquez’s case, he finished with a .341 mark, the second-best of his career — he had a .348 BABIP in 2017 — and some of that was certainly luck. Based on numbers from Baseball Savant, Vázquez’s batted ball quality was simply average, as he was right around the 50th percentile both in average exit velocity as well as hard-hit rate.
So based on that data, one would expect Vázquez to be right around .300 with his BABIP, or maybe even a bit below given his relative lack of foot speed. That’s not all that goes into this, though, and Vázquez has the type of style at the plate that can lead to a few extra singles. For one thing, he is not someone you can position for very easily. The Red Sox catcher has long been the kind of hitter who will use the whole field, and that was the case as well in 2020. On top of that, he doesn’t hit a ton of fly balls. As long as you’re not being shifted, the easiest way to get hits is to keep the ball low, hitting drives and ground balls. Obviously there are some tradeoffs there with power, but in terms of pure average that’s the case. So while the .341 mark is certainly inflated a bit, expecting something in the .305-.320 range is reasonable moving forward even with average batted ball quality.
Combining with the BABIP was the fact that Vázquez started to draw walks at a higher rate than we’d seen in the past. This has always been something that needed improvement from the catcher, particularly before his power breakout. Being able to hit singles is great, but given how fluky that is at least having a solid base of free passes on which to build is a big boost. And in 2020, he walked 8.5 percent of the time, his highest rate since 2015 when he made his major-league debut. Whether or not this can be expected moving forward is a different question, as Vázquez dropped his chase rate compared to 2019 but was still higher than his career average. He was able to draw so many walks largely due to a combination of swinging a bit less at balls than last year while getting fewer pitches in the zone than his pre-2019 breakout. Still, the BABIP and walk rate resulted in a .344 OBP, the best mark of his career.
And while the offense has been the headline for Vázquez in the last few years, it is still the defense that separates him. Catcher is the most important defensive position on the diamond, and teams will always live with bad offense over bad defense there. As his offense has gotten better, Vázquez hasn’t let that affect the glovework. He was typically fantastic in 2020, controlling the running game and coming in as one of the better pitch framers in the league on top of that.
While this was, on a rate basis, the best season of Vázquez’s career, it wasn’t without its flaws. And first and foremost among them was his increased strikeout rate. Throughout his career the Red Sox catcher has generally been a great contact hitter, topping a 20 percent strikeout rate just once in his career prior to 2020. This past summer, though, he struck out a career-high 23 percent of the time. That’s still not a terrible rate in the context of modern baseball, to be fair — he actually came in slightly below the league-average rate — but you still never want to see this number trending up. And most of the damage came on swinging through pitches in the zone, with his 81 percent contact rate on those offerings coming in nearly six percentage points worse than his career-average. Most of the trouble came on pitches up in the zone as well as on the inner half, as you can see below when compared to 2019.
The Big Question
This was clearly the big narrative around Vázquez after his 2019 in which he more than doubled his career homer total coming into that year. And there is little doubt that the juiced ball from that season helped his power breakout. But, of course, the juiced ball helped everyone. That’s how it works. We did see a power dropoff from year-to-year, which was to be expected, as Vázquez watched his Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) fall from .201 to .173. It should be pointed out, though, that the 2020 mark exactly matched the league-average. So even if it was a step back, a good defensive catcher who hits for league-average power is a hell of a player all the same.
Looking ahead to 2021
Since there was trade speculation over the summer involving the Red Sox catcher, it’s impossible to totally ignore the possibility this winter. That said, it would still surprise me and at this point I’d put the likelihood far below 50/50. More likely is that Vázquez comes back as the everyday catcher in 2021 and once again comes in with the expectation that he’ll be one of the key players on the roster.