The more baseball they play, the more we learn about the 2016 Red Sox. We can see the young talent they have, just as we can see glaring holes in the roster. The team isn’t unique, but it is rare to have such big positives and such obvious negatives. There is one position, though, where that isn’t the case, and that’s catcher. The Red Sox catching position isn’t clear at all. Instead, it’s as hazy as a stout, as confusing as buying a house, and as convoluted as your cell phone bill. The Red Sox have four catchers, one who is also a left fielder, two who are hurt, three who can’t hit, and on and on.
It all starts, at least for now, with Christian Vazquez. Vazquez isn’t hurt, but looking at his production, he may as well be. Can you hit .209/.248/.299 with a broken arm? Maybe. That’s what Vazquez is doing with two healthy arms. He’s not the worst hitting catcher in baseball… but he’s awful close.
Despite starting the season in the minors, the Red Sox have depended mostly on Vazquez behind the plate this season. Vazquez was expected to start the season in Boston last year but injured his right (throwing) elbow during spring training and required Tommy John surgery. He missed the season, returned during spring training 2016 and started the year in the minors. When starter Blake Swihart struggled both at the plate and behind it during the first few weeks of the season, Vazquez got the call. That was mid-April. It’s now mid-June. So, recalling the last paragraph, that’s two solid months of horrendous hitting.
But Vazquez isn’t in the lineup to hit! He’s there because of his fantastic defense. He’s the best defensive catcher ever in the history of history, or something. Well, hold those horses, because at least so far this year, he’s not. Looking at our catcher defense report, Vazquez has been fine, good even, but he’s not been great. There have been 12 other catchers who grade out better than Vazquez, so sure, he’s an above average catcher so far, but remember, this is a guy whose slugging percentage is currently below .300 and whose on-base percentage is below .250. He needs to be better than “top half” to have any kind of argument towards playing time with those numbers.
Looking at our catcher defense report, Vazquez has been fine, good even, but he’s not been great.
The argument for Vazquez is probably twofold. First, he’s young, and this is his first extended taste of major league pitching. The second part is true, but the first part is pushing it. Vazquez will be 26 in August. Yes he missed last season so perhaps you cut him some slack based on that. Perhaps he’s still getting into better game shape, remembering his swing, strengthening his arm, and what have you. Perhaps. It’s fair to give him more than just two months if you believe, from a scouting standpoint, that his bat is playable, and you believe in his defense.
Ah, yes, his defense. Let’s get back to that. Remember when the Red Sox brought him up in mid-April, part of the reason they wanted him instead of Swihart was the tremendous defense Vazquez offered. We’ve already discussed his rather mediocre pitch framing, but what about his amazing throwing arm? It was so good he could stop the opponent’s running game simply by reputation. Back in 2014 Vazquez threw out 52 percent of opposing baserunners. That’s nuts! This year he’s thrown out six of 17 baserunners, or 35 percent. That’s 4.5 percent above league average. Allow that perhaps some of that drop off is because his arm strength isn’t all the way back yet after surgery, and that’s fine. But again, we’re talking about a player who has failed to contribute anything with his bat. He has to be fantastic defensively to make that package work, and Vazquez has failed to do that, at least so far.
It’s fair to think Vazquez might hit better than he has to date. He might play better defense as well, and could even improve as a pitch framer. But if everything he does gets better, it’s still up for debate whether or not he’ll ever be anything more than an above average defensive catcher who can’t hit. We have a shorter name for that package of skills: we call them backup catchers. This is where Blake Swihart comes in. The Red Sox have a player in Swihart who has some clear defensive issues, but is athletic and has a worthwhile bat. He’s not likely going to be Manny Ramirez, or even Hanley Ramirez with the bat, but if he can hit for some average and get on base with occasional extra-base pop, that makes him one of the best-hitting catchers in the league.
Unfortunately Swihart is out for at least six weeks (and I’m guessing much longer) after hurting his ankle in the Native American burial ground the Red Sox call left field. The bulging disk in Ryan Hanigan’s neck may let him play sooner rather than later, and Hanigan is likely a step up from Sandy Leon, but he’s not a starting catcher for a reason. So the Red Sox are left with four catchers, two who maybe should be in the minors in Leon and Vazquez, one who won’t be back anytime soon and may not even be a catcher when he returns in Swihart, and one who is a back up and ideally should remain so for health reasons as much as skill-based reasons.
The trade deadline is a bit more than a month away, so the Red Sox will have some more time to evaluate Vazquez, and get Hanigan and Swihart back healthy, but for a team hellbent on winning this season, the catcher position might just be one place the team needs to put on its list of positions that could use an upgrade.
There will be time to go over specific players and trade proposals closer to the end of July, but right now it wouldn’t be shocking if the Red Sox could use A) better offensive production, B) better offensive production from the catcher position, and C) better defensive production from the catcher position. That’s a tall order considering the state of catching in baseball today, but there is one player who, bizarrely, fills that bill: Jonathan Lucroy of the Milwaukee Brewers. Lucroy can hit .(311/.368/.527 through Thursday), he’s one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, and the Brewers are in full rebuild mode so they’d love a look in the Red Sox prospect cupboard as well.
Things can change over the next month. They certainly did last over the last month. But if Vazquez is going to keep playing most days, he’s got to improve. As has been made clear by Dave Dombrowski’s and John Farrell’s actions, this season is about winning and the rest doesn’t matter. If the Red Sox are going to stay in-house at catcher, Vazquez needs to be better. Right now there are more pressing concerns on the team, but if July comes and Vazquez has a .500 OPS, things may change, and quickly.