MLB: Boston Red Sox at Seattle Mariners

Surveying Sandy Leon’s Defensive Value

For the first few weeks this season, catcher was a weak spot for the Red Sox. At different times, it featured a Christian Vazquez who could not figure out how to hit major-league pitching, a Blake Swihart who was either hurt or struggling on defense, and Ryan Hanigan being Ryan Hanigan. Things got so bad that Boston spent much of late June and July smack in the middle of Jonathan Lucroy trade rumors. Of course, that never came to fruition, and the legendary Sandy Leon is the biggest reason for that.

The story of Leon is well known at this point. I’ve already covered it on this very corner of the worldwide web, as has the similarly named Matt Kory. The unexpectedness of his performance along with just the pure production has been astounding. I mean, we’re talking about a guy who’s hitting .351/.406/.575 with a .330 TAv through Tuesday’s action. Among all players with at least 150 plate appearances, exactly 14 have been better at the plate than Leon.

That’s wild, even if we all acknowledge it’s not a performance that will last. Leon deserves every complementary word that’s been written about him, as his importance on a team that’s had some key hitters struggle lately cannot be overstated. However, his performance on the other side of the ball has been somewhat overlooked, despite being extremely valuable in its own right.

Here at Baseball Prospectus, we are starting to realize just how important a good defensive catcher can be thanks to strong framing skills, among other areas of the game. Just a quick look at the WARP leaderboard backs that notion up. At BP, three of the 20 most valuable players in the game this year are catchers. At FanGraphs, you have to go down to 28th to find the top catcher by fWAR. At Baseball-Reference, you have to go to the 29th spot. Given how many plays the catcher is involved with, the BP way of thinking makes sense — and makes Leon’s performance this year that much more noteworthy.

Now, framing numbers get all the publicity in regards to catcher defense, and for good reason. A catcher can impact the game with his framing on nearly every pitch, and having a strong framer can drastically change games on a regular basis. The numbers for Leon in this area are surprisingly lackluster this year, at least at the major-league level. He’s currently cost the team four runs in framing this season, which puts him firmly below average.

However, he was a plus-framer in Triple-A this year and has been for much of his career prior to 2016. It’s entirely possible that he’s been at least a little better than the numbers have given him credit for, especially when you take into account that he’s had to catch Steven Wright’s knuckleball on a semi-regular basis.

Beyond the framing aspect, Leon has been a strong defensive catcher. As a minor leaguer, he always had a strong reputation behind the plate, and it’s largely due to his ability to keep pitches in front of him and his ability to control the running game. As a blocker, he’s simply been average. Nonetheless, once again you need to consider the Steven Wright factor, which will hurt any catcher’s numbers. That’s particularly true this year when Wright’s knuckleball has been out of this world for much of the season.

Using the eye test (which, ya know), Leon’s looked strong in this area. On top of that, he’s been fantastic with his arm. BP has him well above-average, and he again passes the eye test. He even picked off a runner at first base on Wednesday in the middle of me typing this. There’s nothing he can’t do.

Even beyond the raw numbers and the individual aspects of his work behind the plate, there are other reasons to appreciate his defense. Leon started playing on a near-everyday basis beginning in late-June, with the bulk of his time coming in the second half. Coincidentally (or not), that correlates really well with a measurable improvement in the team’s pitching staff. In the second half, the Red Sox have the seventh best ERA in all of baseball and have allowed the third lowest OPS.

Leon certainly isn’t the only factor here — Brian Bannister’s increased presence and expected regression come to mind — but it’s hard to completely discount his role in the turnaround. This is especially true when you consider how the pitchers feel about him.

Take Matt Barnes, for example who says in this piece that he “loves throwing to him.” That seems to be a common sentiment not only within the Red Sox staff, but one that’s followed Leon around throughout his professional career.

Leon’s offensive prowess this season gets all the press, and rightfully so. It’s come out of nowhere, and it’s been immensely valuable to a team that is fighting in a tight playoff race. What he does behind the plate should not be overlooked, though. Although the numbers aren’t spectacularly high on Leon, he has the reputation and the adoration from teammates that suggest he’s valuable back there. Plus, the team has pitched much better since he started playing every day. Leon’s offense is going to fall off at some point — in fact, we’ve already seen the start of that process — but his defense will still bring value to the Red Sox.

Photo by Joe Nicholson/USA Today Sports Images

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