Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Christian Vázquez.
The Question: Can Christian Vázquez remain one of the most valuable catchers in the game?
A couple of years ago, comps started flying around with Christian Vázquez putting him on a similar trajectory to that of Yadier Molina. There can be quibbles with whether or not the long-time Cardinals backstop is overrated by certain corners of fandom, but he’s clearly a great catcher and given where Vázquez was in his career it was a lofty expectation to set. People pointed to the slow start offensively in Molina’s career and suggested Boston’s young catcher could take the path. Others, including yours truly, considered that to be something of a lazy comp.
Well, fast-forward to today and he’s kind of taking that trajectory. He doesn’t have the same mythical aura around him as Molina, his peak to this point is not really close to Molina’s, and he obviously is far from the longevity. But, the point is this comp that I had considered lazy and overly optimistic isn’t so crazy and overly optimistic anymore, even if he’s unlikely to have that good of a career. No shame in falling short of Yadi, after all.
Vázquez has now been a really good hitting catcher, to go with his all-world defense, for three of the last four years. In 2017, he finished the year with a 92 wRC+, meaning he was eight percent below league-average. In 2019, that mark was up above 100 (i.e. he was better than average) at 102, and then he followed that up in 2020 with a mark of 112. Some important context here is that the average wRC+ for catchers in that time has been between 84 and 90. In other words, Vázquez was anywhere from slightly better than the average catcher or way better than the average catcher in each of those seasons.
And yet, despite this very clear production, it still kind of feels like his true talent at the plate remains up in the air. There are a few reasons for this. For one thing, you may have noticed 2018 was missing in that list above. In that season, he was one of the very worst hitters in baseball. In fact, among hitters with at least 250 plate appearances that year, the only hitter worse was fellow Red Sox catcher Sandy León. It’s hard to get a performance that bad out of your head, even if it’s the clear outlier in three years.
It’s not just that he had that really bad season mixed in either. For each of these good seasons, you can find a reason to doubt them if you’re so inclined. In 2017, for example, he rode a .348 batting average on balls in play that was both out of line with the rest of his professional career and also not quite backed up by the batted ball data. In 2019, Vázquez produced on the back of unprecedented power for him, and it also happened to be the Juiced Ball Year around baseball. And then last year, well, it was last year. It’s hard to take any results, good or bad, too seriously from that season.
And so with all of that, we are left with a guy who has been a top five catcher in baseball for most of the last four years, and is projected to be a top five catcher by just about every system in 2021. But he also carries some doubt in his bat heading into 2021. Part of that, in addition to the reasons listed above, is the fact that the league is deadening the baseball, and there is an assumption that Vázquez will be disproportionately affected by that.
I’m not entirely sure I buy that, though. I think there will be some effect, and he’ll be affected more than the Bobby Dalbecs and J.D. Martinezes of the world since he doesn’t have their raw power. On the other hand, most players will be affected to some extent, and ultimately a player’s value is relative to that of others around him. In other words, if most players’ power is affected, he doesn’t need to as much on a raw output basis to produce the same value. Plus, when Vázquez hits his home runs, a lot of them seem to be hit pretty well and not really the lucky variety.
More important than that to me, though, is that I don’t know that Vázquez has to rely on power to really get by. In two of his three good offensive seasons, it’s really been more about the BABIP, and that feels like something he can continue. I’m not sure he’ll be above .340 like he was in those two years, but something around .320 seems reasonable. It seems strange because he doesn’t exactly light it up in terms of exit velocity — he’s typically a little above the 50th percentile in terms of hard-hit rate — but he is the kind of hitter who can parlay a good-not-great contact profile into a higher BABIP. This is because he typically hits a lot of line drives, and he does a really good job of using the entire field. As a result, you can’t shift him, and there are more holes to be found.
So, while I do think his power numbers from drop from last year’s .173 Isolated Power, probably to something around the .150-.165 range, the BABIP can help keep the numbers afloat from there. And then it comes down to plate discipline. In the 2020 shortened season, he did walk more than ever before, but he also struck out more than ever, with rates of 8.5 percent and 23 percent, respectively. To me, this seems to be a case largely of him being a little bit more patient. That leads to more walks, but it also means he’s falling behind in more counts, and then seeing fewer good fastballs to hit. I’d be fine sacrificing a few walks here and there to put the ball in play like he did earlier in his career and get that strikeout rate back down into the teens.
For the most part, I think it’s hard to bet against Vázquez at this point. Yes, there are reasons to call into question some of his successes, but he’s also done it three out of four years, and pretty much all of the projections see him as anywhere from the third to fifth best catcher in the game. A lot of that is the defense, and he certainly should continue to keep that around to give him a high floor. Offensively, I’m expecting more of the same. That probably won’t be like the 2020 production, but something in the 95-100 range in wRC+ sounds like a good baseline expectation, and would keep him right where he is as one of the most valuable players at the most valuable position on the diamond.