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One Big Question: Can Christian Vázquez get the barrel on the ball?

Christian Vázquez’s offensive struggles last year boiled down to too much weak contact. He’ll need to address that shortcoming to be the hitter he was in 2019 and 2020.

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Boston Red Sox vs Houston Astros, 2021 American League Championship Series Set Number: X163838 TK1

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 Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. 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, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Christian Vázquez.

The Question: Can Christian Vázquez get the barrel on the ball?

Throughout his seven years at the MLB level, Christian Vázquez has never been confused for an elite offensive player; however, in 2019 and 2020, he began to produce a hitting profile that certainly made him more than OK, especially for the catcher position. In 2019, he clubbed 23 home runs and had a perfectly solid .798 OPS while checking in at a 102 wRC+ and 103 OPS+, putting him just a hair above average. He built on that success in 2020, batting to the tune of a 115 wRC+ and a 111 OPS+, putting him firmly in the above average category.

The sudden offensive spark was a wonderfully welcome sign for Vázquez, who, up until that point, had gotten by with pretty meager offensive production by being very good behind the plate in terms of framing, calling games, etc.

In the first week or so of the 2021 season, it looked like Vázquez might still be climbing toward his ceiling offensively, as he slashed .458/.500/.833 with a pair of home runs in 26 plate appearances across his first seven games of the campaign. While no one in their right mind expected him to keep up such a pace, it seemed reasonable to think Vázquez was at least going to replicate what he did in the shortened 2020 campaign over the entire 2021 season. In doing so, his standing as part of the offensive core for the Red Sox was also seemingly assured.

Unfortunately, after those first seven games, Vázquez fell apart in the batter’s box. He hit only four more home runs for the entire season, leaving him with six, which was somehow one fewer than his total in 2020 when he had more than 300 fewer plate appearances. As you might expect, Vázquez’s slugging percentage took a severe decline overall (from .457 in 2020 to .352 in 2021). Vázquez also regressed in batting average (.283 to .258) and on-base percentage (.344 to .308) between 2020 and 2021. When you added it all together, Vázquez had the profile of a batter 23 percent worse than league average based on wRC+.

Now, if he had done all that following the 2018 season (or really any year before 2019), this wouldn’t even be much of a conversation. However, after the Red Sox saw Vázquez succeed on offense without any caveats related to his value as a defender in 2019 and 2020, seeing such a startling regression was less palatable.

An offensive decline like the one Vázquez suffered in 2021 usually isn’t a symptom of one missing piece of the puzzle, but you could make such an argument in this case, with the main culprit being a debilitating lack of hard contact.

In 2021, Vázquez had an average exit velocity of 86.3 miles per hour, which was roughly two miles per hour slower than in 2020 and comfortably below league average. In fact, Vázquez’s average exit velocity was in the bottom eighth percentile of MLB batters, according to Baseball Savant. On the hard hit rate front, the news was just as dire, with Vázquez logging hard contact on just 31.1 percent of batted balls, falling nearly 10 percent below his mark in 2020 and far from the league average. Going even further, Vázquez very rarely got the barrel on the ball, ranking in the bottom sixth percentile in barrel rate (2.6 percent). In fact, of a total of 379 times Vázquez put a ball in play, he only logged a barrel 10 times.

Boston Red Sox Spring Training Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

With such a miserable ability to create hard contact, Vázquez’s production should have been even worse than it was, as his actual slugging percentage (.352 SLG vs .337 xSLG) and weighted on-base percentage (.289 wOBA vs. .276 xwOBA) outpaced what would be expected from someone with his profile. This provides at least a little hope, as does the fact that with just a few more barrels, Vázquez could turn his fortunes around very quickly because it’s not like he struggles to make contact. He had a zone contact rate of 87.5 percent and a chase contact rate of 71.8 percent last year. For context, league average in those two metrics was 82 percent and 58.5 percent. In addition, Vázquez had a 16.9 percent strikeout rate in 2021 (league average was 22 percent) and he was in the 89th percentile in whiff rate, according to Baseball Savant, while showing an excellent ability to go to all fields. While none of these do much for Vázquez’s walk rate, it’s not like he’s swinging at everything, as he had a roughly league average swing rate in 2021.

So, how can Vázquez get those barrel rates up? Based on the slew of numbers I just threw at you, the easiest way would be to lay off pitches outside the zone. Vázquez didn’t chase that much more frequently than other batters last year (29.7 percent chase rate vs. a league average of 28.3 percent), but his bat control might have actually hurt him, as he made contact on way more chased pitches than the rest of the league. Getting the barrel into spots outside the zone isn’t something anyone can do consistently (or at all, really), so Vázquez could do himself a favor by laying off such offerings, even if he can likely get the bat on them. In addition, Vázquez needs to avoid getting under the ball so much, something he did at a higher rate (29 percent) than league average (24.4 percent) in 2021. Most projections don’t think he’ll be able to make those kinds of adjustment, with ZiPS and Steamer both projecting him to finish with an 85 wRC+, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

So, it’s simple: Vázquez just needs to hit the ball harder, or, perhaps more specifically, swing at pitches he knows he can barrel and execute. How difficult can that be? It’s not like hitting a baseball is colloquially considered the most difficult thing to do in sports. Joking aside, if Vázquez can get the barrel on the ball more often, he can get back to being an average or even above average hitter again, and that’s really all the Red Sox need from him.