Coming into this season, the catcher position was among the most interesting spots on the Red Sox depth chart, with an unclear future that could move in a lot of different directions. They had a veteran duo for 2022 with Christian Vázquez and Kevin Plawecki, but it wasn’t clear what, if any, long-term value either held. With Vázquez in particular, a 2021 that saw him finish with a 77 wRC+ called into question whether or not he could be a number one backstop for much longer. With flawed but intriguing prospects in Connor Wong and Ronaldo Hernández both in Triple-A, it seemed a changing of the guards could be in order sooner than later.
The first month of the season backed this feeling up as well, at least from the perspective that a change seemed like it was needed. Vázquez was one of the worst hitters in a lineup that was filled with black holes, putting up a 45 wRC+ at the bottom of Boston’s order. Well, don’t look now, but he’s starting to turn things around. It’s easy to lose track of it because of just how many hitters in this Red Sox lineup are scorching hot at the moment, but Vázquez once again looks like an everyday catcher, and in May has been among the best at his position in all of baseball.
In the month of May, Vázquez is hitting .314/.375/.451 for a 141 wRC+. There have been 34 catchers who have gotten at least 40 plate appearances this month (Vázquez is at 56), and that 141 mark is fourth in that group, trailing just Daulton Varsho, Willson Contreras, and Keibert Ruiz. This run is serving to totally turn around his season. Even wrapping in that horrific stretch in April, Vázquez is almost a league-average bat at this point with a 95 wRC+ on the season. 100 is league-average overall, but the average catcher this season has an 84 wRC+. Some of this is certainly small sample related, and we’re still at a point in the season where one big game can shift things significantly, as happened with Vázquez on Tuesday with his three-hit game including a homer.
But there are some legitimately encouraging signs for him right now that show, while he may not be a star-level player, he’s someone we can feel good about again playing the bulk of the time behind the plate. First and foremost, his plate discipline has improved significantly as the season has gone on, and it’s catapulting him to this new level. Whereas in April he walked only two percent of the time to go with a 24 percent strikeout rate, this month his walk rate is up to seven percent with the strikeout rate getting down to 16 percent. He’s gotten much more patient, with his swing rate falling from 57 percent to 44 percent, and a good chunk of that coming on pitches out the zone, following the pattern of the rest of the lineup.
That is showing up in his performance against breaking balls, too. The big issue for Vázquez last season was his inability to make quality contact, as he ranked towards the bottom of the league in just about every meaningful contact quality metric. He’s improved his contact quality against basically every pitch, but the breaking ball performance stands out the most, with his average exit velocity climbing from 81 mph to 85, all while his whiff rate fell from 28 percent to 15 percent. With Vázquez being more patient against breaking stuff and only attacking ones that he can hit, he’s getting ahead in more counts, both drawing walks and making contact in hitters’ counts.
And it’s all showing up in those contact quality metrics as well. Now, Vázquez is certainly not transforming into Rafael Devers and hitting everything over 100 mph, but relative to last season he’s been better. His hard-hit rate is now in the top half of the league at 42 percent after being in the bottom 10 percent of the league in 2021. He’s also barreling the ball as much as he ever has, and while it’s not really translating into power — his Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) is still just .103 — but by hitting a ton of line drives, and line drives back up the middle, he’s getting plenty of hits.
Part of me wants to just write this off as a hot week or two and suspect that he is going to fall back down to Earth, but it’s worth noting that many of the projections on FanGraphs have him basically keeping this up, with three separate systems having him put up a wRC+ between 94 and 98 for the rest of the season. And if he keeps up this newfound plate discipline and continues attacking breaking stuff the righty way, I find it hard to argue. His .366 BABIP from this month won’t keep up, but we should also expect more of his barrels to go for homers and doubles to help cancel this out. The Red Sox don’t need Vázquez to be the best catcher in baseball, but if he can continue being an acceptable starter, it makes their lineup better and some tough questions coming up a little easier to answer.