Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez joins elite class at his position

Boston Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez has emerged as one of the top players at his position at the plate and behind the dish defensively.

Christian Vazquez finally had the breakout season we’ve been waiting for in 2019. His batting average recovered from the injury-plagued downfall of the prior season and a surprising power surge boosted his extra-base hit total. Combine that with his excellent defense and pitch framing ability and Vazquez has officially made the leap to the elite class at his position.

ESPN’s Buster Olney ranked the ten best catchers in baseball, with Vazquez landing at No. 4 on the list.

“The Red Sox have some rebuilding to do, but they appear set at catcher for at least the next few seasons, now that Vazquez is fully established,” writes Olney. “He hit for consistent power for the first time in 2019, with 26 doubles and 23 homers, and he fared so well at the plate that manager Alex Cora worked to get him into the lineup on days when he wasn’t catching. He had 11 starts at designated hitter, seven at first base and one at second.”

The top of the list is indisputable. J.T. Realmuto led all MLB catchers with 4.4 WAR last season. He’s one of the game’s top hitting catchers, rates excellent in pitch-framing metrics and threw out more base runners than anyone.

Next on the list is Yasmani Grandal, who spent last season with the Milwaukee Brewers before signing a lucrative free-agent deal with the Chicago White Sox this winter. He was third at the position with 28 home runs and a .848 OPS while ranking in the top three in Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) and Framing Runs.

Both catchers resided in the National League last season, leaving the American League’s top catcher a tightly contested debate between Vazquez and Cleveland’s Roberto Perez. Olney gave Perez the edge but a case can be made that Vazquez should be ahead of him.

Perez is an excellent defensive catcher who was awarded his first Gold Glove award last season. He ranked second among major league catchers with 25.7 FRAA while finishing third with 15.5 Framing Runs and 1.5 Throwing Runs. Perez led all catchers with 29 defensive runs saved.

Vazquez can’t match those metrics but he was a finalist in the Gold Glove conversation for a reason. He was 15th among catchers with 5 defensive runs saved and 7.8 FRAA. His 12.3 Framing Runs ranked fifth and he was eighth with 0.8 Throwing Runs.

While Perez has a clear edge defensively, the gap is wider in Vazquez’s favor at the plate. Perez belted one more home run but Vazquez more than doubled his extra-base hit total and produced a higher slugging percentage (.477 to .452). Vazquez hit a solid .276 and has a .256 average for his career. Perez “improved” to .239 and has a meager .216 career batting average.

Perez is admittedly the better defensive backstop but Vazquez remains very good behind the plate. The latter has emerged as a legitimate threat in the lineup while the former is a liability.

Vazquez’s career numbers are marred by two brutal offensive seasons. One was in 2016 when he was working his way back from Tommy John surgery. The other was an injury-shortened 2018 when he was limited to 80 games and struggled to find his groove at the plate. He proved he could hit for average by producing at a .290 clip in 2017 and this year we saw the power spike. As long as he stays healthy, we can expect Vazquez to build on his career year.

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The rest of Olney’s top catcher list is made up primarily of sluggers with abysmal batting averages, poor defensive players and past their prime veterans. None of them can match the all-around contributions of Vazquez, putting him comfortably within the top four. He’s yet to make an All-Star appearance but that could change this year. Grandal’s transition to the AL provides steep competition for the starting role but Vazquez will warrant strong consideration for a spot behind him if he can at least replicate last season’s production.

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