Christian Vazquez has a shiny three-year contract extension with the Boston Red Sox. But does he have a place on the 25-man roster come October?
Christian Vazquez has been sidelined since July 9 with a fractured right pinkie but is now beginning a rehab assignment that should have him back in the bigs within a couple of weeks. Once rosters expand on September 1, there’s no doubt Vazquez will have a spot in the Boston Red Sox dugout.
However, when the Red Sox begin postseason play, there is a case for the 27-year old to watch his team play from home.
Let’s start by saying, according to Baseball Reference, the Red Sox have received -2.5 wins added from their catching situation – comprised of Vazquez, Sandy Leon, Blake Swihart, and for a couple of games, Dan Butler. That ranks 29th in baseball. Needless to say, catching has not been a strong point.
Vazquez himself has done little to alleviate the problem. In his 60 healthy games this year, he’s managed just a .548 OPS, a far cry from the .735 mark of 2017.
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In an attempt to explain that, consider his batted ball profile.
Vazquez’s hard-hit percentage has stayed practically equal from last year at 26.9 percent. At the same time, he’s hitting fewer line drives and ground balls, and instead more frequently lifting the ball in the air. Fly balls fall in for hits an average of 20.7 percent of the time, but when they do fall, they have twice the ISO as line drives and 18 times the ISO of ground balls. This stands to reason, the most extra-base hits come from getting the ball to the outfield in the air.
By this logic, Vazquez should have seen his power numbers go up, while perhaps his average takes a hit. However, only 4.7 percent of his fly balls leave the yard. Thus, he’s relying on the other 95-plus percent of his fly balls to find grass, which, as previously stated, only happens an average of 20.7 percent of the time.
Hitting fly balls but not home runs is a recipe for disaster, and his .240 BABIP stands as evidence. You could call it bad luck, but I would call it a player trying to become something he isn’t. Vazquez doesn’t have the power profile to succeed as a fly ball hitter.
With catchers, however, defense is much more important. And it’s way down in 2018 for Vazquez.
After registering 31 defensive runs saved in his previous three seasons, the backstop has actually lost 4 “runs” this year on defense. His 31 percent caught stealing, while still exceeding the league average, is a career low.
Meanwhile, the tandem of Sandy Leon and Blake Swihart have held down the fort to a serviceable degree.
Here are some of Vazquez’s aforementioned statistics compared to his competition.
|Games started at C||OPS||Defensive Runs Saved||Caught stealing percentage||Catcher ERA|
What we can gather here is that Vazquez isn’t the best hitter, he isn’t the best defender, he isn’t the best thrower, and he isn’t the best game caller.
It seems that Leon has his spot secured with his strong defense and trust in the pitching staff. If we’re going to make an argument for Vazquez to be kicked off the 25-man in October, it starts with Swihart.
His overall numbers don’t look great without any context. But context is important because Swihart was practically dormant on the Boston bench until late May. And even then, he wasn’t playing his natural catcher position until Vazquez went down in July. It becomes nearly impossible to find a groove at the plate with a couple at-bats per week, so one could argue it’s only fair to judge Swihart since he began receiving consistent playing time.
Since Vazquez’s injury on July 9, Swihart is slashing .286/.327/.449, good for a .776 OPS and a 107 wRC+. Leon, on the other hand? Just .128/.204/.213 with a .417 OPS and a 10 wRC+. While Swihart has been even better than the league average hitter, Leon has managed just ten percent of the average offensive production. With Leon slumping at the dish and Vazquez showing no evidence of hitting prowess, it’s safe to say that any hope for good offense starts and ends with Swihart.
Another popular knock on Swihart is his defense. It’s been long assumed that he can’t handle the position, a weird misconception without much evidence to back it. It was reported in Spring Training that he couldn’t even throw the ball back to the pitcher.
Well, it seems like that isn’t a problem anymore.
Speaking of pop time, Swihart ranks fifth among MLB catchers in pop time at 1.93 seconds. Leon isn’t too far behind at 1.97 seconds. Where’s Vazquez? 88th at 2.10 seconds.
The final argument one can make for Vazquez over Swihart is catcher ERA. This metric measures what the team’s ERA is when that catcher is behind the plate. As shown earlier, Vazquez has the edge, 3.76 to 4.02.
However, while Vazquez has gotten the chance to catch pitchers like Chris Sale, David Price, and Rick Porcello on a regular basis, here’s the list of starters that Swihart has caught this season: Drew Pomeranz, Hector Velazquez, Brian Johnson, and Jalen Beeks.
Those four pitchers have combined for a 4.82 ERA in 2018. Again, Swihart’s catcher ERA is 4.02, almost a full run lower. An argument can easily be made that his game calling actually makes his battery-mate more effective.
The Red Sox have two options with their catchers heading into the playoffs. They can either hold all three, as they had been doing prior to Vazquez’s injury or decide to leave one behind and roll with the more traditional two catchers. Doing so would free open that extra spot to perhaps carry an additional reliever, or a pinch-runner (like former postseason heroes Dave Roberts and Quentin Berry), or a reserve bat.
The options to improve the overall strength of the roster with that one spot are numerous, but they’ll never come to fruition with the exorbitant three-catcher approach.
Which brings me to my final question: is a middling-hitting catcher, lacking in the defense and arm behind the plate that his teammates possess, truly worthy of one of the 25 roster spots in October?
The Red Sox can find better value elsewhere, and if years past have taught us anything, the 25th man can sometimes decide the whole thing.