The Boston Red Sox, an organization long admired for adherence to a data-driven approach, are suddenly reacting to the smallest of samples. Last Friday they sent down Blake Swihart just eight games into the season and replaced him with Christian Vazquez, a decision seemingly prompted by a couple defensive miscues by Swihart—a missed pop-up here, a poor pitch called there. That’s a strangely quick hook for a team that apparently loved Swihart going into the season, and it brings into question whether they’re reacting too quickly to poor early results. Here’s the thing: Sometimes bad process—and that’s what I’m calling the Swihart-for-Vazquez swap—yields good results.
Vazquez, as you surely know, is a tremendous defensive catcher. Since his return to Boston he’s shown that he’s lost little if any of the defensive chops he displayed during his rookie season in 2014. On Friday night he back-picked a runner at first base (arm, check) and on Saturday he made an excellent catch on a fouled bunt attempt by Kevin Pillar (reaction and instincts, check). In both starts he was behind the dish for good outings by Rick Porcello and David Price, as Boston’s pitching held the high-powered Blue Jays offense to just five runs in the first two games of the series.
None of this is to say that Swihart couldn’t have been back there for those outings (or made that catch or that throw), or that Vazquez is the missing ingredient that will turn Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly into Cy Young front-runners. It’s hard to deny that he’ll help, though, and on a team with major weaknesses in the starting rotation, it’s fair to look for any advantage possible in that area. If Vazquez can do enough defensively to turn this rotation from a net negative into something that can at least remain competent enough to let the rest of the team’s strengths—hitting, defense, relief pitching—shine through, he can hit like a poor man’s Madison Bumgarner and nobody will notice.
Swihart should remain in the organization’s long-term outlook, as there are obvious reasons why he was the one you were hearing about as a prospect. The dude can hit, and throwing a Jason Varitek-type comp on him isn’t crazy—and his defense is passable. But the Red Sox want to win now and there’s a decent argument to be made that Vazquez’s glove work outweighs the difference between Swihart and Vazquez at the plate, particularly on a team that’s full of offensive thump early in the order.
There are many facets to catcher defense, some of which we still don’t understand or can’t measure. One of the things we do understand, however, thanks to years of PITCHf/x research—much of it done right here at Baseball Prospectus—is that pitch framing is extremely important. A good pitch framer can save upwards of 20 or 30 (or more) runs over a poor one, and the most notable difference between Swihart and Vazquez defensively are their respective pitch framing abilities.
|Catcher Season||CSAA||Framing Runs||Framing Runs/7000 Chances|
It’s early in the 2016 season, of course, but in just three starts Vazquez already ranks ninth in the majors in Framing Runs. Swihart is off to a subpar start, his -0.006 CSAA about equal to the figure he put up in 2015. In short, in a full season Vazquez could add two or three wins over Swihart in pitch framing alone. But how?
Vazquez is just soooo quiet back there, and he’s blessed with the ability—call it hand strength, call it barely perceptible hijinks—to ever-so-slightly coax pitches back toward the edges of the strike zone, at least in appearance. Vazquez presents pitches as strikes as well or better than anybody in baseball, whereas Swihart scores closer to average. The difference is easier to explain with pictures than words.
Here are two fastballs from David Price that end up in almost the same location—the one on the top (Swihart) is called a ball and the one on the bottom (Vazquez) is called a strike:
Note with Vazquez there’s very little movement. He subtly shifts his glove toward the strike zone after catching the ball, but it’s hardly noticeable. Swihart’s form, on the other hand, isn’t bad. There’s more movement than Vazquez and he stabs at the ball slightly, but he’s just going up against a guy who is in another class.
Here’s another pair of fastballs that miss the plate just outside:
Focus on the difference between Swihart’s and Vazquez’s head movement. Vazquez’s head doesn’t budge while Swihart’s—along with his body—shifts slightly outside with the pitch. Excessive head movement is a no-no for catchers, unless that catcher is trying to match Ryan Doumit for framing futility.
Here are two high breaking pitches that both miss their intended location:
Notice again how Swihart’s glove, head, and body all dart up quickly with the pitch, almost like he’s surprised by it. That pitch looks high, even though PITCHf/x says it crossed the plate near the top of the zone, and you can see why the umpire abstained from a strike call. Vazquez moves as little as humanly possible to catch his pitch and he presents it as a perfectly reasonable strike.
Check out where Vazquez’s body is when that last pitch is being delivered compared to where it is when he catches it:
Did he move? I don’t think he moved.
One of the burdens of managing a talented roster is coping with the eventual logjams that crop up at certain positions, and making sure everyone gets a fair shot can become difficult if anticipated injuries or underperformance never transpire. This is a good burden to have, mind you.
Swihart and Vazquez both deserve to start on major-league teams, but for now the Red Sox are pulling a 180 and switching their two young catchers around, sending Swihart back to Pawtucket with apparent plans to have him take fly balls in left field. The hope is that they won’t damage Swihart’s development (or trade value), and that he’ll take to a more versatile role and be back with the big club when called upon—nobody ever said Swihart and Vazquez can’t coexist. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way.
For now, the Red Sox will move forward with Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan at backstop, and the pitching staff will be out of excuses. Along with superior framing abilities, Vazquez possesses a top-notch arm, excellent all-around instincts and a command of the game you hear pitchers constantly raving about. It’s a puzzling early-season decision by Boston—what happened in two weeks to prompt such a dramatic change?—but it could be a lot worse. At least Swihart’s being exchanged for a good player, and if Sox pitching improves tenfold over the summer, it certainly won’t all be attributable to the work of the baseball gods.
Vazquez is really good back there.
Photo by Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports Images