Red Sox Prediction: Don’t rely on Christian Vazquez’s bat
Nobody questions Christian Vazquez’s defensive merit, but despite a fast start to 2017 the Boston Red Sox can’t trust his bat.
Oozing defensive talent and touting intangibles behind the plate that earned him the nickname “Mini Yadi” by teammate Joe Kelly, Christian Vazquez has been a frustrating case since he broke into the majors in 2014.
A .700 OPS away from being an MLB mainstay, Vazquez’s bat always lagged just a bit too far behind his defensive ability to justify an everyday role. He posted a .617 OPS in his rookie campaign before missing all of 2015 due to Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. In 2016, Vazquez came back to a .585 OPS in 57 games, not too far off from a typical NL pitcher.
All the while, he was throwing out 44.2% of would-be base-stealers (league average was roughly 28%) and gaining the confidence of his pitching staff. Almost any other catcher would be demoted long ago, but Vazquez’s presence behind the dish kept his floor high. His ceiling, however, remained tantalizing on the horizon, knowing that if his bat ever caught up with the rest of his game, the Red Sox would have an All-Star catcher on its hands.
Cue 2017 and Vazquez’s .345/.378/.464 slash line. Woah.
Obviously few players could keep up such a torrid start, especially a player with Vazquez’s checkered hitting past. Regression would naturally be expected. But in Vazquez’s case, as much as every Red Sox fan would hate to admit it, expect regression hard.
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What makes the 26-year-old backstop’s hot-hitting ways so unlikely to continue? There’s been a whole lot of luck involved.
Vazquez’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) stands at .426. League-average hovers around .300, so it doesn’t take too much to realize the degree of inflation that Vazquez has experienced. However, it would be unreasonable to take BABIP at face value and assume good luck on the part of Vazquez without examining some of the underlying causes. After all, a good hitter will hit the ball harder, and thus his BABIP would be higher than a lesser hitter who hit the ball softer without any luck involved.
First, there is the player’s history. Taking into account all of his years in the minor leagues and the seasons with the Red Sox, Vazquez had never posted a BABIP over .340 (with a sample size of greater than 10 games played).
Meanwhile, he has posted a career-low walk rate of 3.3% and a strikeout rate of 18.9% that represents middle ground between his 2014 (16.4%) and 2016 (21.2%) seasons. While a slightly decreased strikeout rate is definitively a positive sign, that coupled with such a low walk rate means Vazquez puts the ball in play at an extremely high rate. Again, not a bad thing, but it causes his numbers to be even more skewed by his inflated BABIP, leaving him especially susceptible to statistical regression.
But it’s not just the young catcher’s history with relatively normal BABIPs that should get the alarm bells ringing. It’s also the contact that he’s making that led to the BABIP.
Vazquez is hitting balls with soft contact at nearly twice the league-average rate. Such a disparity adds evidence to the claim that his numbers are partially due to luck, as poorly hit bloopers and ground balls have found gaps when they could have easily found mitts. Even shifting nearly a third of his soft-hit balls to medium-hit balls should result in a BABIP over 130 points lower than what he has.
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It appears that Vazquez still hasn’t quite figured out major league pitching to the degree that his 2017 batting line would suggest. Regression is just around the corner, so enjoy the bloop hits and squib ground ball singles while they last. And continue to enjoy the rocket arm that gives base-runners nightmares, because at least that isn’t going anywhere.