Focusing only on position players, there is not a position more important or harder to fill with a good, all-around player than catcher. It is not all that difficult to find a catcher who is very good at defense or a solid hitter you can trust in your lineup every day, but if you were to look around the league you’d be hard-pressed to find more than a handful that are good at both. If you can find one, you do a little dance for a few minutes and then you do everything you can to keep them. If you can find one after signing them to an extremely team-friendly deal, well, that’s very good for you as the team. The Red Sox have one of the better dual-threat catchers in the league, and it’s about time we start giving him the respect that comes with such a prestigious title.
The Christian Vázquez dual-threat party started in earnest last season when he started hitting for power we had never seen from him before and ending up hitting well enough that the Red Sox actually played him at other positions just to keep his bat in the lineup. Seriously, considering where he was before 2019 in his career, that is a wild, wild statement. And it made sense! Last season, Vázquez finished the year hitting .276/.320/.477 for a 102 wRC+. You may not be blown away by that 102 wRC+, but consider the league-average catcher last year put up an 85 wRC+. Also consider that Vázquez is one of the better defense catchers — the most important and valuable defensive position on the diamond — in the game as well.
There was obviously concern last season that this was all a fluke for the Red Sox catcher, and for good reason. I mean, the year before this he had posted a 42 wRC+. He hit 23 home runs in 2019 and in his four previous season he had a grand total of 10. It would be absurd not to be worried about a fluke given all of that information. But what I’m here to tell you today is that I’m all-in on Vázquez. I’m done worrying about the fall off. I’m here for his ascendance to top-tier (or damn close) catcherdom. I hope you’ll join me.
Now, as we get into what we’ve seen this year, there is the obvious caveat that this is in a laughably small sample. There is nothing we can reasonably take away from his numbers with any reaction beyond, “Hey this is neat” and “Hey this is a nice sign we should continue to watch.” We’re six games into the season, and Vázquez has been on the bench for two-thirds of them. I can and will tell you the numbers, but I need this paragraph for legal reasons so I can point to it when someone inevitably yells at me on Twitter or in the comments or in my email inbox. All analysis this time of year comes with some confirmation bias, because we don’t have enough to wipe away much at all of our preconceived notions.
Okay, with that out of the way, are you ready for Vázquez’s numbers? Because they’re pretty sick. Early on in this season, after hitting a home run Wednesday night, he is hitting .400/.438/.867 for a 244 wRC+. This is the part where I tell you it’s only 16 plate appearances. So, yeah, I know. This sample is meaningless. Anyone can be good for literally four games. I could probably even get hit by a couple of pitches and not even have a .000/.000/.000 line.
Even with the small sample, though, I’ve seen enough that I’m in on Vázquez. (And again there is confirmation bias here because I was damn close to all-in on him before the season anyway.) Specifically, there are two areas where I’m particularly encouraged with what I’ve seen from him at the plate. One is the approach. A couple of years ago in 2018, when the entire lineup really altered their approach after the additions of J.D. Martinez and Alex Cora, Vázquez when right there with them being more aggressive on pitches in the zone. It didn’t work at all in 2018, but it clearly did in 2019.
The only issue was that he was also swinging on pitches out of the zone, and often without making contact. That led to a strikeout rate just under 20 percent, which is still better than average in today’s league context, but it was a career-high for Vázquez. With the other stuff you could live with it, but it still wasn’t a great development. Early on this year, though, he’s swing at far fewer pitches out of the zone, and as a result he’s hardly struck out at all. Now, his strikeout rate will climb from its current six percent, but if he can get that to stay around 14-17 percent where it’s been in the past while keeping the success on pitches he swings at in the zone, well that’s how you get a stew goin’.
The other encouraging sign here, which probably goes hand-in-hand with the laying off pitches out of the zone, is that he’s having success against breaking balls. Again, small sample, but we’re looking for positive developments here not statistically significant gains. It’s too early for that. The point remains that Vázquez had the vast majority of his solid contact last year against fastballs, posting a .355 expected wOBA against them compared to .286 against breaking pitches and .229 against changeups. If he can show he can hit something other than a fastball, that adds a whole nother layer to how pitchers have to consider pitching against him.
Again, and it can’t be said enough, this is a tiny sample. One 0-4 with three strikeouts and the numbers start to look a lot worse. But he hasn’t had that, and what we’ve seen so far shows the gains he made last year with a couple of potential approach tweaks that could keep him at that 2019 level or even a little above it. I’m giving it to what I’ve seen and hoping we can all recognize what the Red Sox have behind the plate. Vázquez is not J.T. Realmuto, Yasmani Grandal or Gary Sánchez. But after that, he’s in the conversation with anybody, and that is a massive development for the present and future of this team.