Red Sox: Chris Sale throws bullpen session with Christian Vazquez

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 1: Christian Vazquez
BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 1: Christian Vazquez /

Boston Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale’s battery mate for his first bullpen session of the spring was Christian Vazquez instead of Sandy Leon.

Chris Sale‘s first bullpen session of the spring was nothing out of the ordinary with one exception – the catcher behind the plate. On the first official day of workouts for pitchers and catchers, it was Christian Vazquez serving as the battery mate for the ace of the Boston Red Sox.

This may signal a change in course from last year when Sale worked almost exclusively with Sandy Leon. Boston split catching duties between their two backstops relatively equally in 2017. A breakout season from Vazquez started to earn him more playing time down the stretch but it was still Leon behind the dish whenever Sale was on the mound.

Leon caught 31 of Sale’s 33 starts last year. The lefty’s strong rapport with his catcher was a factor in Sale delivering one of the best seasons of his career. He posted a 2.63 ERA, 7.21 strikeout-to-walk ratio and held batters to a .202 average in games working with Leon.

The sample size with Vazquez is a minuscule two games but the results were drastically different. Sale allowed eight runs over 5 1/3 innings (13.50 ERA), posted a 5.00 K/BB ratio and allowed a .385 average.

Was this a small sample size fluke or reason for concern? We should note that most of the damage came in a seven-run shellacking against a Cleveland Indians team that has long been a nemesis of Sale. The Red Sox ultimately overcame the implosion from their ace when Vazquez hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth.

The limited track record and poor results won’t necessarily stop new manager Alex Cora from using Vazquez with Sale this spring. Sale claims he is comfortable throwing to Vazquez, according to ESPN’s Scott Lauber.

Given the strong defensive reputation of Vazquez and his success with other pitchers, there’s no reason why Sale can’t succeed with him once they get familiar with each other. Spring training presents the perfect opportunity to build that chemistry between pitcher and catcher.

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Moving away from using Leon as Sale’s personal catcher provides Cora with more flexibility in filling out his lineup. Sale will presumably start on Opening Day and the Red Sox will want to field their best lineup to support him. That means using Vazquez, who hit .291 with a .734 OPS in his breakout year.

Leon was a nice Cinderella story in 2016, only to regress back toward his career norm with a .225 average and .644 OPS last year. He remains a top-tier defensive backstop, although so is Vazquez. If the hot bat Vazquez showed down the stretch last year carries into this season then there will be little reason to turn to Leon behind the plate unless Vaz needs a breather.

Blake Swihart is all but assured of a roster spot given that he’s out of minor league options. Cora has talked about moving him around to various positions. He may even see time at second base if Dustin Pedroia is sidelined to begin the season. While Swihart’s versatility allows the Red Sox to use him in a variety of ways, Cora suggested he was still in the mix to see time at catcher. If he proves capable of handling the defensive responsibilities behind the plate then he could further eat into Leon’s playing time. Swihart becoming a serviceable catcher may even make Leon expendable.

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It’s too soon to tell how the playing time at catcher will be distributed but the rapport between Sale and Vazquez is worth keeping an eye on this spring.