What can the Red Sox expect from Christian Vazquez in 2020?

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 13: Christian Vazquez #7 of the Boston Red Sox hits an RBI double in the bottom of the seventh inning of the game against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on April 13, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 13: Christian Vazquez #7 of the Boston Red Sox hits an RBI double in the bottom of the seventh inning of the game against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on April 13, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images) /

In 2019, Christian Vazquez had the best offensive season of his career. The Red Sox have to wonder what they can expect from him in 2020 and beyond.

(Disclaimer: This article is being written under the assumption that there will actually be some meaningful baseball played this season. Please read it while keeping that in mind.)

One of the most pleasant and unexpected surprises of the otherwise forgettable 2019 season was the emergence of Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez as a bona fide power hitter. After hitting a total of 10 home runs in his first four major league seasons, he exploded for 23 homers in 2019. He also more than doubled his previous career-high in RBIs by driving in 72 runs.

While the increase in production out of the catcher position and at the bottom of the order was welcome, it also brought up as many questions as answers. The knock on Vazquez since he was coming up through the Red Sox minor league system was that he was all defense and no bat.

Though he had some big hits for the Sox (including his solo home run in game four of the 2018 ALDS which turned out to be the game-winner), in general, he had been a light-hitting catcher whose primary contribution to the team was his defense behind the plate. That all changed in 2019 with his offensive outburst. One look at his career numbers tells the story.

2014: .240 BA, 1 HR, 20 RBI, 19 BB, 15 R, 308 OBP, .617 OPS (55 games)

2015: (missed entire season due to Tommy John surgery)

2016: .227 BA, 1 HR, 12 RBI, 10 BB, 21 R, .277 OBP, .585 OPS (57 games)

2017: .290 BA, 5 HR, 32 RBI, 17 BB, 43 R, .330 OBP, .735 OPS (99 games)

2018: .207 BA, 3 HR, 16 RBI, 13 BB, 24 R, .257 OBP, .540 OPS (80 games)

2019: .276 BA, 23 HR, 72 RBI, 33 BB, 66 R, .320 OBP, .798 OPS (138 games)

Keeping in mind that Vazquez missed time in 2016 recovering from his Tommy John surgery and platooned with Sandy Leon in 2017 and 2018, the 2019 season is really the only one in which he played what is the modern equivalent of a full season for a catcher. Even so, the increase in his power numbers is startling and the clear outlier.

Does that lead to wondering just who the real Christian Vazquez is? Is he the weak hitter buried at the bottom of the batting order from 2014-2018, or the guy who exploded for 23 home runs last year?

It also begs the following three questions to be asked: Did Vazquez simply “figure it out?” Was it one of those classic “fluke” seasons that players sometimes have? Did the juiced ball that inflated home run totals across MLB and MiLB aid in his increased power?

We’ll go through each of these one at a time. First, did Vazquez simply figure things out, put it all together at the plate, and have his best season? This one is the hardest one to answer for a few reasons.

Baseball is such a quirky game that even the best players in the game can have a down season for seemingly no reason at all. It’s also such a mental game that how a player approaches it in their head can mean the difference between success and failure.

More than that, his one season of increased production is just too small a sample size to determine whether it was real or not. For this one, a few more seasons will need to be seen in order to determine if it’s simply a case of Vazquez finally putting everything together at the plate and refined his approach.

The second question to ask is if Vazquez had a fluke season. These have happened numerous times throughout baseball history, but the one that instantly sprang to mind when thinking of this was Brady Anderson. Anderson (who was a former Red Sox prospect) was a very good outfielder for the Baltimore Orioles for fourteen seasons.

He never hit more than 24 home runs in his career except for 1996 when he exploded for 50 home runs; he also hit 110 RBI that season, the only time in his career he eclipsed the century mark.

Many people at the time and since have insinuated that he was taking PEDs, especially given the era in which he played. Others, including teammate Cal Ripken, Jr and Anderson himself claim that he simply worked hard in the offseason and everything just broke his way that season.

“Everything breaking his way” could have been the reason for Vazquez’ 2019 season where he jumped from single-digit home run totals to twenty-three. (This is not to infer that Vazqy took PEDs because to the best of my knowledge, there’s no suspicion that he ever has). Maybe it was just a fluke.

The final question to ask is whether the juiced balls contributed in any way to Vazquez’ inflated home run total. Among fans and the media, there has been suspicion that Commissioner Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball have been juicing the balls going back to the 2015 season in an effort in increase offense across the game.

While Manfred and the league continually denied it, what couldn’t be denied were the increasing total of home runs. In 2015 the total number hit was 4909, an increase of almost 800 home runs from 2014. From there it just got sillier and sillier: there were 5610 home runs in 2016, 6105 in 2017, a dip to 5585 in 2018, and then a massive spike to 6776 in 2019.

While independent labs and amateur scientists tried to study the construction of the ball to determine what was different, and while pitchers across the league complained about the seams feeling lower and the balls slicker, one thing in 2019 confirmed everyone’s suspicions: the explosion in home runs in the minor leagues. The first year Minor League Baseball used the same baseballs as MLB was 2019 and they had a 60% increase in home runs hit for the season.

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Obviously something funny was going on with the baseballs, causing pitchers to struggle to get enough spin on them and the balls to carry farther when hit due to the reduced drag. This resulted in some absurd home runs on balls that came off the bat weakly which would have been long fly outs in previous years. Could the juiced baseballs have been a contributing factor to Vazquez’s increased home run total in 2019?

It’s certainly possible as several of the poorly hit balls that inexplicably carried and carried until they were over the fence came off of his bat in 2019. While it can’t be determined for certain, given the farcical increase in home runs and the number of middling players across the league who were all of a sudden hitting 20 or more home runs last season, it almost certainly was a contributing factor.

None of this is to take away from anything Vazquez accomplished in 2019; rather, all of this needs to be asked in order to determine going forward what the Red Sox can expect from him. With the trade of Sandy Leon, Vazquez is now the Red Sox primary catcher and will receive the bulk of the playing time behind the plate (much to the chagrin of Chris Sale, whenever he ends up pitching again).

Next. Leon Paulino's journey to the Red Sox. dark

How Christian Vazquez performs over the next few seasons will go a long way toward determining whether what he did in 2019 was a one-off or his new normal. As far as what the Red Sox and their fans are hoping for, it would be best if it’s the latter.