Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez is an early MVP candidate.
It’s not enough to call Christian Vazquez the best catcher in baseball. The backstop for the Boston Red Sox has arguably been among the best overall players in the game during the early stages of this abbreviated season.
Vazquez had a breakout season in 2019, hitting a solid .276 with a career-high .798 OPS. His 23 home runs were more than double his career total entering that season.
There were some who dared to call Vazquez’ offensive leap a fluke. At least in terms of his unexpected power surge, it would be fair to hesitate before calling his critics wrong. After all, his previous career-high was a mere five home runs.
Last season was no fluke and Vazquez is proving it with his blistering start. He enters the day hitting a scorching .421 and tied for the league-lead with four home runs. His 1.555 OPS would rank second if he weren’t just shy of the necessary plate appearances to qualify.
Vazquez powered the Red Sox to a victory over the New York Mets on Thursday with a multi-homer game. He put Boston on the board by crushing a changeup over the middle of the plate for a solo shot to deep left center. After the Red Sox coughed up the lead in the following inning, Vazquez rallied back by hammering a high fastball for a two-run homer that snuck over the wall in left field.
His bat isn’t the only aspect of his game drawing rave reviews. Vazquez prevented the tying run from getting into scoring position with a stolen base, firing a laser from his knees to gun down the runner at second base. Michael Conforto got a decent jump but it wasn’t enough to beat the strong throwing arm of Vazquez, who has now thrown out three of the five runners who have dared to run against him this season.
The 29-year-old was viewed as a defensive-minded catcher early in his career but he’s quickly shedding that label with his production over the last two seasons.
Tommy John surgery wiped out his sophomore season and he found it difficult to shake off the rust in limited playing time when he returned in 2016. He showed flashes of offensive potential by hitting .290 the following year but many questioned the sustainability of that lofty average which was drastically better at hitter-friendly Fenway Park, plus the power had yet to arrive.
Another injury in 2018 limited Vazquez to 80 games and spoiled his momentum, leading many to believe the previous year’s batting average spike was an outlier. Then 2019 happened with Vazquez putting it all together at the plate. Another fluke? Not based on what we’ve seen this year.
What led to this transformation at the plate? Vazquez has worked hard to improve his offense in order to increase his role with the Red Sox, according to what he told MassLIve’s Chris Cotillo.
“I was tired of hitting ninth,” Vazquez said Thursday. “I want to be a different player. I want to feel like I’m helping the team both ways, hitting and catching. I’m trying to do my best.”
Vazquez has earned his promotion toward the middle of the lineup. He has been slotted into the 7-9 spots in the order in 306 of his 380 career starts (80.5 percent). This year, all five of his starts have been in either the No. 5 or 6 spot.
He’s moved into a more prominent role in the lineup, putting up numbers at or near the top of the league in most offensive categories, while playing excellent defense behind the plate. He’s carrying a lineup that features several stars who have struggled out of the gate. Sounds like an MVP candidate to me.
We could see some surprising choices on this year’s ballot. In a short 60-game season, a hitter only needs to get hot for a few weeks to put themselves in the conversation. Vazquez has done so for one week. If he can keep this up a bit longer while avoiding a cold spell that spoils his early-season success, Vazquez should at least be in the discussion.
Of course, to be a legitimate threat to capture the hardware, the Red Sox need to reach the playoffs. With this year’s expanded postseason format, it’s hard to imagine an MVP coming from a team that doesn’t qualify. Play above .500 ball and you’re at least in the hunt.
Unfortunately, the Red Sox aren’t quite there yet with a disappointing 3-4 record. They should turn things around though. The pitching has been brutal but it’s hard to imagine it getting much worse. The talented hitters in the top half of the lineup will eventually get going.
The stellar play of Vazquez has prevented this ship from sinking through the first week of the season. If he continues to perform at a high level while his more decorated teammates wake from their early-season slumber, Boston could end up being a threat in the postseason hunt after all.