Over the past year, I’ve been looking at how the Red Sox have handled their catcher position. Usually, my analysis of the situation has ranged from completely disgusted, to tired of it all, and then to actually curious as to how it’ll all turn out. It’s been a weird roller coaster ride with none of the high points included. Just a few drops here and there.
Since it’s been a while since that last piece, it’s about time we re-evaluate the catcher position for the Red Sox. The best way to describe it currently is that it’s in flux. It’s not yet a black hole like third base, but there are a lot of questions, and the answers may be more harsh than you’d like. The personnel have mostly been disappointing, except for one Christian Vazquez. The future looks nice, especially in the long term, but Swihart’s down year is making the short term look more tenuous. It might be tough to watch them hit, but boy, will they ever flash the leather.
Let’s start with Vazquez. His hitting for the first half of the season has saved the Red Sox from having to look for offensive help at catcher, as he rode an insanely high BABIP to win the lion’s share of starts behind the plate. On his 29th game played, which was on June 1st, Vazquez had a .446 BABIP. As much as we want him to, he is not going to hold that up. So, as high BABIP numbers tend to do, it started dropping over his next 20 games played, and it’s now at a more believable .331. Vazquez now has a .267/.303/.358 slash with a .219 TAv. That’s underwhelming, no doubt about it. To his credit, he did have his token moonshot home run not too long ago.
His defense, at least empirically, has gotten better from last year. Adjusted FRAA has him as the sixth-best catcher defensively, wedging him in-between the Austins Hedges and Barnes. So, at the very least, his defensive chops are close or back to where they were. That’s a good sign, and it makes him currently the most viable catcher in the Red Sox system right now.
Sandy Leon, however, has had a rough go of it. Without the .392 BABIP that carried his legend last year, Leon has regressed to become a catcher that occasionally hits for power. His .138 ISO beats out Vazquez’s mark by over 40 points, giving him some unique value to the Red Sox that Vazquez cannot. Leon can still crank out a homer here and there, but having just power and not a lot of contact skill makes him an inconsistent hitter, and his shortcomings opened the door to a red-hot, BABIP-fueled Vazquez as the season went on. He’ll always have that 12th-inning walk-off homer, though.
While BP’s catching metrics see him being equal with Vazquez in blocking and throwing, he lags far behind in framing, which is an area in which Vazquez excels. So with nothing other than the infrequent power spikes, Leon has had to settle into the backup catcher role. He won’t hurt you defensively, but the .226 TAv is being carried by his power, and that’s not something you want to rely on for 60% of your games.
[Swihart]’s registered a .221 TAv at Pawtucket so far this year, and at this point, he is clearly not a viable option for the big league team.
Blake Swihart had gotten the short end of the stick in 2016 after the failed left field experiment, and 2017 has not been kinder. He had a great first week, then he hurt his finger, and as of July 8th, he had to be put on the disabled list after feeling soreness in his left ankle – the very same one that required surgery in 2016. It isn’t easy to do your daily routine with a bad finger and bum ankle, so I can’t even imagine trying to catch professional pitchers with both affecting him. He’s registered a .221 TAv at Pawtucket so far this year, and at this point, he is clearly not a viable option for the big league team. It might be a long while before he’s healthy enough to get another shot.
Beyond that, there’s not much to bet on for the short term. Behind Swihart is Dan Butler, a 30-year-old catcher who has seemingly been the Red Sox’s fourth catcher forever. There’s not really much at Portland to speak of, unless you’re into guys with approaches at the plate that go way beyond patient, and not in a good way. The low minors will probably see new international signee Daniel Flores sometime in the near future, but he’s only 16 years old, and catchers can take an awful long time to develop. He’s someone to keep in mind for the long term.
The state of the catching situation is tenuous. I did say it was in flux, but there’s also not a lot to fall back on if Vazquez and Leon fall apart with Swihart struggling in Triple-A. There’s also not a lot of projection left in either of the two major league catchers, as it’s hard to see Vazquez getting better at the plate, and I wouldn’t bet on Leon getting anywhere close to where he was last year. But for once, I can say that this isn’t entirely the fault of mismanagement. Swihart is still feeling the effects of that, yes, but it’s not a completely mismanaged position. Just a partially mishandled one.
It’s still not a pretty sight, and the Red Sox are lagging behind in offensive production from the catcher position. The most likely outcome here is that the Red Sox have to deal with great defense and shoddy hitting for a while, and even though that’s not a bad thing, it’s something they could’ve done better handling up until this point. Catcher isn’t a gaping hole like third base is, but with their top catching prospect struggling and a lack of viable offensive options, this is how a situation like that tends to start.
Photo by Dan Hamilton – USA TODAY Sports