It’s about time we start having a serious Sandy León conversation. Admittedly, this isn’t a novel idea; León has been on fire and plenty of people have discussed it. Perhaps a better way to put this is that it’s time for me to seriously consider the catcher as legitimate member of the team. He’s been unbelievable in a tiny sample since joining the roster, and at a certain point you just can’t ignore it. Now, it’s weird talking about these situations because we all know it’s not going to last. Telling you about his unsustainable BABIP isn’t going raise any eyebrows. At the same time, the hot streak is having a real effect on the Red Sox, and it’s put them in an interesting situation. Namely, they reached a point in which they had to decide between León and Christian Vazquez, with the former coming out ahead. What makes this particularly wild is that this is the correct decision.
Before we get into the roster crunch, let’s take a quick look at what exactly León has provided in the majors. Again, none of this is going to be surprising, but I think actually looking at the numbers with your eyeballs is necessary to understand just how unexpected and amazing he’s been, even considering the diminutive sample. We’re talking about a catcher — far and away the worst offensive position in the game — who has collected 21 hits in 49 plate appearances and boasts a .408 TAv. Four Zero Eight! He has exactly as many hits as he had in 2015 but in just 38 percent of the plate appearances. It may not be sustainable, but it’s certainly fun as hell.
León has exactly as many hits as he had in 2015 but in just 38 percent of the plate appearances.
Part of the reason he has had so much success is that he’s seeing almost exclusively fastballs. Per Brooks Baseball, that pitch has made up over 70 percent of the pitches he’s seen this season. It’s not overly surprising considering León is a bottom-of-the-order hitter with zero track record as a major-league quality hitter. In terms of profile, he’s a step above a pitcher at the plate, and his opponents have no reason to risk playing around with offspeed and breaking pitches. León has made them regret it thus far, though, as he’s hitting line drives and ground balls over 75 percent of the time. That goes a long way towards explaining his aforementioned unsustainable BABIP (.571!). More importantly, León isn’t missing his pitches, as he’s swung through just over 10 percent of the fastballs at which he’s offered.
The newest Red Sox sensation doesn’t have much of a sample size to deal with even in terms of career stats, but he’d settled in as a guy who strikes out a little more than the league-average hitter. That hasn’t been the case this year as he’s made tremendous amounts of contact. Again, this goes back to the fastball heavy approach, which certainly makes things easier. Still, León deserves credit for barreling the ball up almost every time. This is particularly true of pitches in the zone. He currently boasts a whopping 95 percent contact rate on would-be called strikes, which obviously puts him among the elites in this area regardless of sample. Eventually, if León continues to successfully attack these fastballs in the zone, pitchers will adjust and things will go back towards expectations. I’m about as certain of this being true as León is likely to his a pitch in the zone.
That doesn’t mean this is all meaningless, though. Again, this performance forced the Red Sox to make a decision regarding their catchers, and it could be very valuable for the team’s immediate and long-term future. The front office’s confidence in León gives them a chance to send Vazquez down while still being productive in the majors. Even if/when the offense crashes back down to Earth, both León and Hanigan are well-respected defensive backstops, meaning the team won’t be taking too large of a step back after losing Vazquez’s majesty.
This move is beneficial in two ways. Most obviously: It preserves depth behind the plate. It’s always easy to think that the team is set with two solid catchers, but we’ve learned time and time again that having a third is very important. We saw it last year when León was far less successful, and we’ve seen it this year. He was never supposed to be part of the plan. If they’d decided to keep Vazquez on the roster, that would’ve meant León would’ve been designated for assignment. Given the dearth of catching talent around the league, he almost certainly would’ve been claimed, putting the Red Sox one injury away from Dan Butler appearing on the big-league roster. Baseball seasons are really long, and depth is often the separating factor between good and mediocre teams.
Additionally, it gives Vazquez some time to work on his craft without the bright lights that come with a team fighting for a playoff spot. Regardless of how great his defense is, the way he’s hit this year has been untenable. Vazquez is currently the not-so-proud owner of a .202 TAv, which makes him essentially a replacement level player as well as the tenth worst hitter in the league among all those with at least 100 plate appearances. We know his defense ensures that he’ll never have to be a star with the bat, but he does need to be closer to mediocre. There’s no guarantee he’ll reach that point by facing Triple-A competition, but it’s certainly worth the shot.
I’ve said this a thousand times already, but it bares repeating: Eventually, León is going to fall back to Earth. Pitchers will start to treat him like a major-league hitter, and he’ll look like he has in the past. In the meantime, though, he’s allowing this team to preserve its depth while also letting them further groom their possible catcher of the future. And hey, this all sounds like what we all thought about Steven Wright. Perhaps León can represent lightning striking twice. Anything is possible.
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