Welcome to BP Boston’s second annual Roster Recap series. Over the next few months, we’ll be analyzing every player on Boston’s 40-man roster and many of their top prospects in order to provide a comprehensive overview of the Red Sox roster’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as what we can expect moving forward. From MVP-candidate right fielders to reserve relievers, we want to give you a look at every Red Sox who might matter in 2017. View the complete list of Roster Recaps here. Enjoy!
Christian Vazquez. Blake Swihart. Christian Vazquez. Blake Swihart. Back and forth the discussions have gone about which player will emerge as the Red Sox’s primary catcher. You know the talking points: Vazquez is an elite defender but offers next to nothing on offense, whereas Swihart is a considerable, athletic threat on offense, but is still a project on defense. Swihart and his offense got the nod as the 2016 Opening Day starter, but after only two weeks of mediocre hitting and a struggling pitching staff he was sent to Triple-A – and asked to get reps in left field! As such, the primary catching job was there for the taking. Vazquez was given the first crack at taking it, but his near-automatic-out presence in the lineup made it too difficult to justify playing him everyday, despite his top-rate defense. This gave Sandy Leon an opportunity. He came up, hit ~.900 for a month or three, and secured the starting job for himself. As such, Vazquez was relegated to backup duty, which is the role he is slated for in 2017.
What Went Right in 2016
First and foremost, Vazquez getting called upon quickly after Blake Swihart faltered at the start of the season was a positive development for two reasons. First, it is important to remember that Vazquez had missed the 2015 season following Tommy John surgery – a factor that likely contributed to his not being assigned to the major league club out of spring training – so this early-season call-up meant the team was confident that he was healthy enough to take on the lion’s share of the major league catching duties. That is not insignificant. Second, it was a clear vote of confidence in the skill set that Vazquez offers. At the time of his demotion, Swihart was hitting .278/.391/.278. That slugging percentage is ugly, but the on-base percentage is glorious. Neither were likely to continue at those levels, as that slashline is based on just 23 plate appearances, but already the team decided that getting better defense behind the plate was more valuable. There was basically no chance that Vazquez was ever going to match what Swihart did offensively even while Swihart was “struggling.” But the team was seemingly not worried about that, which I suppose was fair given the rest of the lineup, and opted for the defensive stalwart.
After getting called up, Vazquez was who we thought he was. His offense was awful – more on that in a section below – and his defense, the big, bold, line on his resume, was great. It was not as excellent as it was in 2014, his rookie season, but it was still 15th best among guys with at least 3,000 framing chances. Single-season defensive numbers should be interpreted with caution, but it is worth noting that almost all of Vazquez’s numbers declined from 2014, which may be troubling. The halving of his framing runs was probably not as much about him as it was about the rest of the league focusing on framing more, which ultimately makes it harder to be a standout framer. If the average gets higher, it is harder to remain well-above the average. However, the decline of Vazquez’s throwing-related numbers is more readily tied to him and not league-wide Moneyballish tactics. His elbow injury may have cost him an mph or two, which is enough for would-be-basestealers to nab an extra bag or seven over the course of the season. The history of catchers returning from Tommy John surgery is not good, but hopefully Vazquez can deviate from that trend. All told, and despite my nitpicking here, Vazquez’s defense was great in 2016 and remains the tool that will keep him in the major leagues.
What Went Wrong in 2016
His offense was basically unplayable. Even considering all the nice stuff I said above about Vazquez’s defense and the team opting for defense over offense, they were eventually forced to send Vazquez back to Pawtucket to work on his hitting. We know that Vazquez’s offensive production is the factor that will limit his role on this or any other team, but even with that context in mind his 2016 was alarming. He posted an abysmal .198 TAv, which was tied for sixth worst in baseball (among players who were given at least 175 plate appearances). Almost everything was worse in 2016 than it was in 2014. He struck out more and walked less, which meant he got on-base less often. He did hit for more power, but a .308 slugging percentage (.081 isolated power) is nothing to write home about.
Vazquez being so terrible at the plate did make his lone 2016 home run, a Scotty-Smalls-eyes-closed-catch-like moment, all the better:
That was really great, but doesn’t account for all the lousy trips to the plate he made last year. Simply put, Vazquez needs to hit better if he is going to be the team’s starting catcher; maybe even if he wants to be the backup. Nobody is asking him to fill David Ortiz’s shoes, but producing a TAv in the .230-.250 range – as it was in 2014 – will work just fine.
Outlook for 2017
Vazquez’s 2017 will, like the start of his 2016, involve a competition with Blake Swihart for the backup catcher role with the major league club. Sandy Leon’s torrid three month stretch last season has seemingly earned him the starter’s role. At this point, I think that Vazquez has the inside track to the backup job, as his defense is already major league ready, and the team will almost certainly want Swihart to get more work at the Triple-A level; he missed the majority of last season and it really seems like Dave Dombrowski is not confident in Swihart as an everyday catcher. So I expect the team to break camp with Leon/Vazquez as the catching duo. If Leon hits more like he did in September/October than he did in June through August, then Vazquez could see more time than is typical for a backup, and maybe even take over the starting role. But if Swihart gets his defense in order and hits like he is expected, Vazquez’s reign as the starter in Boston will be short-lived. He will be running the Pawtucket pitching staff, or part of another one of Dave Dombrowski’s multi-player trades.
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