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2021 in Review: A step back for Christian Vázquez

Coming in with high expectations, Christian Vázquez was the rare disappointment on the 2021 Red Sox.

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Division Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox - Game Three Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Welcome to our 2021 Boston 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 2021. Every weekday we’ll be deep diving into one player, describing the season in a sentence, looking at the positives from the year as well as negatives, looking back at our one big question from our season preview and looking ahead to the 2022 season. Today we look at the year that was for Christian Vázquez.

2021 in one sentence

Christian Vázquez came into the year not far off the top tier of catchers in baseball, but after a hot start he went in the wrong direction at the plate and finished with a disappointing season.

The Positives

Given how much surprising success there was for the Red Sox this past season, there aren’t a whole lot of players who clearly came in below expectations and for whom there isn’t a lot of positives to talk about. Unfortunately, Christian Vázquez was among them, though that does not mean there are no positives to speak of with his season. In a lot of ways he reverted to his old self at the plate, and while that’s by and large not a great thing, there was one area in which Vázquez did improve over the previous couple seasons.

That would be with his contact rate. In 2019 and 2020, we saw the Red Sox catcher improve leaps and bounds at the plate, but he sacrificed some contact in the meantime. Granted, his strikeout rate still came in better than league-average, but it was a jump from his previous career norms. In 2021, Vázquez was back to said norms, striking out just under 17 percent of the time this past season. For context, the league-average strikeout rate was a shade over 23 percent, and the backstop’s rate put him among the top quarter of hitters in baseball.

In true Christian Vázquez form, he also tended to step up in high-leverage situations. As we know, the man only hits clutch home runs. (Yes, that’s outdated, but I will never stop bringing it up.) As always, dealing with these sort of leverage stats in a single season come with small sample issues and probably shouldn’t be the expectation moving forward, but the numbers show he did step up when the moments were the biggest. Compared to marks that put him more than 20 percent below league-average in low- and medium-leverage situations, Vázquez hit .326/.388/.488 for a 135 wRC+ in high-leverage spots. Again, this is only over a whopping 50 plate appearances, but he did improve his walk rate and quality of contact in these situations.

The Negatives

It’s great that Vázquez was able to cut down on his strikeout rate a bit and make some more contact, putting a ton of balls in play, but the production just did not match that particular improvement. Instead, the catcher finished the season hitting .258/.308/.352 for a wRC+ of just 77, putting him 23 percent below league-average. And it really starts with the quality of contact.

Making contact is only half the battle, especially in this age of hyper-personalized defensive positioning. If you’re not hitting the ball hard, you’re just going to have more trouble than ever getting the ball through for a hit. And it’s not exaggerating to say that Vázquez produced some of the worst contact in all of baseball. According to data from Baseball Savant, the veteran was in the bottom nine percent in average exit velocity, bottom 11 percent in hard-hit rate, bottom two percent in expected wOBA, and bottom six percent in barrel rate. That’s a good way to end the season with an Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) under .100 despite having the second-lowest ground ball rate of your career.

Perhaps even more concerning, though, was the relative step back defensively. Now, I don’t want to overstate the step back here and still want to express that he was probably still a bit better than average, but Vázquez has spent most of his career among the best defensive catchers in the game. This year, though, his framing was rated as essentially neutral by Baseball Savant, and was actually negative by FanGraphs’ measure. Additionally, his ability to control the running game as measured again by FanGraphs was just neutral. Especially considering the step back at the plate, his move towards average behind the dish really hit his overall value.

Boston Red Sox v Washington Nationals Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

And then that Vázquez appeared just totally overmatched against breaking balls stood out this past year as well. His 28 percent whiff rate against those offerings is the highest he’s ever posted against a single pitch type in a single season, and the conversely the 80 mph average exit velocity was the lowest of his career against a single pitch type. He’s never been great against breaking pitches, but he’s typically held his own, and the only season in which his trouble resembled what we saw in 2021 was in 2018, a season in which he finished as perhaps the worst regular hitter in all of baseball.

The Big Question

Can Christian Vázquez remain one of the most valuable catchers in the game?

This is clearly an emphatic no. Entering the 2021 season, there was little doubt in my mind that he was a top-five catcher in the game based on the previous couple seasons. Now, the question moving forward is how much longer he can be the regular catcher.

2022 and Beyond

And that’s the focus, I think, in his short-term future with Boston. Vázquez is entering the final season of his contract, and he has to prove not just to Boston but to the whole league that he is deserving of a starting role, and perhaps a multi-year contract, beyond 2022. That the Red Sox were reportedly sniffing around the Jacob Stallings market suggests they may not be totally set on Vázquez as their starting catcher for next season, but I still expect him to be in that role. But this year will be about the future at catcher, both with the veteran looking to prove he’s not done yet, as well as a pair of young catchers in Connor Wong and Ronaldo Hernández fighting to show they can replace him.