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 singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover Christian Vázquez.
The Question: How much of Christian Vázquez’s breakout was due to the juiced ball?
This was one of the most obvious questions to ask for any player on this list. I thought about bucking the expectation and looking for a different curiosity for the Red Sox catcher, but that seemed a little bit too hipster-y. For as exciting and as obvious as Vázquez’s breakout was as it was happening, it kind of feels like he has been overlooked as a potential X-Factor in 2020. The Red Sox offense is talented, but it really is brought to another level if Vázquez truly is one of the better hitting catchers in the game like he was last year. Of course, there are extremely legitimate questions as to whether or not that breakout really was, well, real, even more so than your typical one-year sudden breakout.
In one way, Vázquez’s season was obviously real. I saw it happen. You saw it happen. The numbers are on Baseball-Reference. It was a real, tangible thing. Over 138 games and 521 plate appearances, he hit .276/.320/.477 with 23 homers for a 102 wRC+. He even played different positions towards the end of the year to keep his bat in the lineup. That all happened!
The reason it’s being called into question even more than a typical one-year breakout is two-fold. For one thing, it was jarringly sudden. Vázquez hadn’t gotten a ton of playing time before 2019, partially because he simply hadn’t been good enough to justify everyday playing time and also due to injuries. Still, he had not been anywhere near this. He had a 42 wRC+ in 2018. His previous career-high Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) was .114, a full 87 points lower than his mark in 2019. In 291 career games before last season he had ten career homers, less than half of what he hit in his 138 games a year ago. Throw in the fact that MLB was using a golf ball all season that called power numbers in general into question, it’s hard not to challenge what Vázquez did as simply being the product of a juiced ball. Of course, it’s also possible he simply evolved as a hitter and happened to do so in one of the strangest offensive seasons in league history.
I’m going to spoil the ending at this point and simply say that there is going to be no clear answer here. That was obvious to me before even doing any research, because everything about last year is such an anomaly we have no idea how to judge it. We also don’t even know what the baseball will be like this year (assuming there’s a season this year).
All of that being said, there are still some things I wanted to look at to try and glean a little more insight, even if a binary answer was never going to be possible. The most logical place to start, of course, was the batted ball data. As anyone who follows modern baseball knows, launch angle is the way to tap into extra power. I had always thought that was a mistake for Vázquez as I wasn’t sure he had the true power to take advantage of it — and fly balls are harder to get hits on than other batted balls — but clearly I was wrong there. That said, there wasn’t a major increase in launch angle in 2018. Instead, it happened in 2018 and he just held onto those gains last year. There are two ways to look at that. One is that the reason the results were so different is because the baseball flew further in 2019. That’s reasonable! On the other hand, I’m not sure it’s unreasonable to think he simply took a year to adjust and optimize this new launch angle thing. Again, it’s not as binary as we might want!
It’s not just the launch angle, though. The big difference in the batted ball data between 2019 and every other year is how hard he hit the baseball. According to FanGraphs, his hard-hit rate jumped over 33 percent, while his previous career high was below 28 percent. Baseball Savant indicates his average exit velocity jumped about a mile and a half per hour from the previous year, and his barrel rate (which combines exit velocity and launch angle) jumped over six percent. His previous career high had been below three percent. His solid-hit rate (below a barrel, but still hard contact) jumped from 5.2 percent in 2018 to 8.8 percent in 2019. As with before, though, the degree to which this was “real” is up in the air. He was making better contact, but was the ball traveling at a greater velocity because there was less drag? I’m going to be honest, I slept through most of my physics classes in high school, so this is a little out of my reach.
The most damning piece of evidence for Vázquez is probably when you look at how far his home runs went. Baseball Savant tracks the average distance for home runs, and it seems likely that the players who hit the shortest home runs, on average, will lose the most power if/when the ball is back to normal. Out of the 250 hitters who qualified, Vázquez’s 387 feet on his average homer was tied for 23rd-lowest in baseball. That’s troubling. However, it also makes sense to me that players in hitter-friendly parks and, in this case, hitter-friendly divisions, would fare worse in this simply because they have more opportunities for short home runs. That didn’t really play out in the numbers, though. For example, five of the top 18 players were on the Mariners. If you are looking for some good news, Alex Bregman was in the top ten, and people aren’t really looking at him as a heavy regression candidate.
Like I said, I don’t have a nice, neat answer here. In some ways, Vázquez made some real changes. You could tell just looking at him that the swing and the contact were a little different. He broke out in the worst year to get full credit for it, but there was real work and adjustments being made. On the other hand, it would be silly to dismiss what was readily apparent all year long. The truth, as is so often the case, is likely somewhere in the middle. There’s a solid chance his 2019 is going to be a career-year, particularly in the power department, but he can still be a good starting catcher in this league. As far as which side he is closer too, well, I don’t even know when the season is going to start. I’m certainly not going to predict the drag on the baseball, never mind its effect on an individual player.