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The enigma that is Christian Vázquez at the plate

He is who you want him to be.

Boston Red Sox v Miami Marlins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Red Sox may have been one of the few clear sellers on the market leading up to last month’s trade deadline, but there weren’t a whole lot of truly juicy rumors as they were mostly focused on trading role players. If you ignore the Xander Bogaerts speculation, which was always ridiculous, the juiciest rumor with any legs involved Christian Vázquez. It’s unclear how close they ever really got to making a deal involving their catcher, but there were solid rumors that both the Rays and Mets showed interest at the very least. In the coming offseason, I’d expect to hear Vázquez’s name in more rumors, particularly if J.T. Realmuto hits the open market. Whether or not a trade actually happens I’m not nearly as confident in my gut feeling, but it’s going to be a situation to watch.

Anything involving Vázquez is inherently weird because even as a veteran on the who just turned 30 in August, it’s still not exactly clear who he is as a hitter. His offensive talent is really something of a personality test for fans, as you can see him being whatever you really want him to be.

Let’s take last year, for example. This was the big breakout for the Red Sox catcher at the plate. He had taken over the every day role for good, and he hit like no one ever would have expected him to. It wasn’t just that he was a valuable hitter, but that he was valuable because of big-time power. Vázquez finished the 2019 season with 23 homers after coming into that season with just 10 for his career in parts of four seasons before that. His .201 Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) was 87 points higher than his previous career-high, and prior to that season he’d only topped .100 once in four seasons.

Boston Red Sox v Miami Marlins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

There were legitimate reasons to believe this was at least partially for real. For one thing, he was hitting the ball hard more often than ever. Perhaps more notably, he was combining that contact with a new approach that saw him lifting the ball more than ever. On the other hand, Vázquez had a 16 percent homer-to-fly-ball ratio, well above his career norms and above the league-average. He also had his power breakout in a season that very clearly included juiced baseballs, which calls any power breakout into question.

Now moving ahead to this season, with all the of the weirdness that comes with it, the power has indeed gone down in a big way. His .144 ISO is still higher than any pre-2019 season, but it’s also a substantial step back from last year. Vázquez did start out the season extremely hot — the NESN booth was throwing out MVP talk — but petered out pretty quickly after that, particularly in the power department.

And yet, despite falling off, he’s come back as an overall hitter this month and his total batting line is actually a little better than it was in 2019. Through 176 plate appearances this year, Vázquez is hitting .275/.341/.419 for a 105 wRC+, meaning he’s been five percent better than league-average. The big difference has been the on-base skills, as he’s fallen in ISO but his batting average on balls in play is up 37 points from last year and his 9.1 percent walk rate is three percentage points higher than last season and his highest rate since his rookie year back in 2014.

Just as there was with his power output in 2019, though, there are real reasons to call into question the sustainability of what Vázquez has done this season. With respect to his BABIP, there’s always reason to call that number into question with a sample size as small as his this season. It takes a while for BABIP to stabilize, and a 60-game schedule just isn’t enough time, particularly for someone who plays a position that sits at least once or twice a week. The normal indicators for a high BABIP aren’t really there for him either, as his hard-hit rate has fallen a bit since last season and his soft-hit rate (both via FanGraphs) has risen substantially. He had a similar issue in 2017 when he finished with a 92 wRC+ thanks in large part to a seemingly unsustainable .348 BABIP.

Along those same lines, there’s not a whole lot in his plate discipline numbers to suggest his walk rate is something we can expect to continue as we look ahead in his career. According to data from Baseball Savant, Vázquez is seeing roughly the same amount of pitches in the zone (within a half of a percentage point) with a chase rate only slightly lower than last season and actually higher than his career rate. He’s also seeing basically the same pitch mix as he has in the past, it would seem to come down to sequencing, which tends to even out over a larger sample.

And yet, all of this is where the idea of an enigma comes in. You can certainly nitpick and find legitimate, reasonable reasons to doubt Vázquez’s numbers from every season. You can also just look at the results and see that they plainly tell a different story. In the last four seasons, catchers have never finished with an average wRC+ above 90. Vázquez, meanwhile, has beaten that mark in three of those four years. In fact, he’s broken 100 in two of those seasons, which also happen to be the last two. Of course, on the other end of that coin, in the one season he didn’t break 90 he was the fifth-worst hitter in all of baseball among those with at least 200 plate appearances.

I still don’t really know where I stand with Vázquez as a hitter. I find myself really wanting to talk myself into him being one of the better hitting catchers in the game, because he has been above-average (for the position) in three of the last four years. And yet I can’t really bring myself to just throw away the very real concerns with all three of those seasons. The overall package with him continuing to be one of the best defensive catchers in the game year in and year out still makes me lean towards not even entertaining the idea of trading him this winter (unless someone offers something silly, which is an obvious caveat). But as far as his offense goes, I’ve come down to the idea that Vázquez is the Red Sox’s version of a Rorschach test. Whatever you want to see, you can.