Opinion

What has happened to Christian Vazquez’s defense?

Christian Vazquez has not been the same guy behind the plate in 2018

Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (May 12, 2018 – Source: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images North America)

Christian Vazquez is seemingly heating up at the plate, with two towering homeruns and four hits in his last three games. This little stretch at the plate is a good sign for Vazquez, who has been one of the worst hitters in the majors this season. Even with the twin moonshots, the backstop has produced an ugly .203 AVG/.248 OBP/.284 SLG in 158 plate appearances in 2018.

The drop-off in offensive contributions from last year was not unexpected, as he ran a high BABIP (batting average on balls in play) that likely inflated his numbers. With that said, no one could have predicted he would slide this much, although he still has plenty of time to rewrite the script. Moreover, his BABIP-luck has been in reverse this season, featuring a low and unsustainable .224 BABIP.

Offensively, Vazquez is a bit of an enigma, with occasional monster pull-side pop and streaky offensive stretches. He probably tops out as a league-average hitter during a good season (2017), but this part of his game had always taken a backseat to his defense. Whatever he brought to the table with the bat was just extra, as his defense would outshine however poorly his performance was at the plate. This view of Vazquez’s defensive abilities may be outdate, though, because the recently-extended catcher has seen significant turbulence in the most heralded part of his game.

This should be evident by the eye test if you have been watching Vazquez and the Boston Red Sox on a consistent basis, but it is confirmed by almost every number and metric imaginable. From StatCast data and advanced metrics to pitch framing and allowing runners to steal bags off him, the 27-year-old has seen negative regression in every important category.

The Run Game

Starting with the basic stuff, he has not been able to control the run game like he has been in the past. With 20 attempts against him on the season, runners have been able to successfully steal a bag 15 times, meaning he has only thrown out five. This obviously works out to a .250 CS% (caught stealing percentage) against him, which ranks 9th among 14 qualified big-league catchers. It is not the worst percentage in the league, though it is still in the lower percentile for qualified catchers. It certainly sticks out, however, because it is such a considerable fall off from 2017.

Last season, Vazquez threw out 21 of 50 batters in 95 games, which works out to a sterling .420 CS%. He just missed qualifying on ESPN’s (Baseball Reference) catcher fielding statistics leaderboard, but, if he had, he would have placed second among all catchers. The only player in front of him would have been Cincinnati Reds’ backstop Tucker Barnhart, who also ranks second thus far in 2018 in that category.

Anyway, it is not even as if 2017 marked an aberration in caught-stealing percentage for the diminutive right-handed hitter. In 2016, he caught eight of 23 (.348 CS%) and in his rookie season (2014) he literally caught more runners stealing than (15) than those who were successful swiping a bag off him (14). His ability to control the running game has been one of his greatest attributes as a player and it has not been the same this season. Could it be Vazquez is simply getting unlucky? Has he just been the victim of slow pitchers or breaking balls thrown at the wrong time? Perhaps the players who are running against him have just been very adept baserunners? Considering his track record, this seems to be the most plausible explanation but, digging into the numbers, it does not hold true.

StatCast released new, innovative data for catchers in the offseason. Basically, the new array of stats can enlighten us on a catcher’s exchange time (how quickly they release the ball, in seconds) arm strength and, then, combing the numbers, can give information on “pop time” to second and third base. In other words, how quickly does a catcher get the ball to the bag, compared to their peers, on stolen-base attempts? Below I have a summary, via Baseball Savant, about the “pop time” statistic.

Pop Time measures the time from the moment the pitch hits the catcher’s mitt to the moment the ball reaches the fielder’s projected receiving point at the center of the base. Pop Time is a combination of exchange time (how quickly the catcher releases the ball, measured in seconds) and arm strength (velocity of throw, in MPH). Arm strength is measured on “max effort” throws, or the average above a player’s 90th percentile performance.
The Major League average Pop Time on steal attempts of second base is 2.01 seconds.

Unlike ever before, we now have public access to important information regarding a catcher’s underlying abilities to get the baseball to the base. Though they rolled it out in the offseason, they have been tracking it since 2015, allowing us to go back in time into Vazquez’s pop-time history. Before the stats are revealed, it is critical to understand we are strictly going to be looking at second-base pop time and not third base. There are not enough stolen base attempts at third to get reliable data, especially opposed to second base.

So, in 2017, Vazquez’s golden year, he ran a second base pop time of 1.96, which is above-average and ranked 14th among 61 catchers with at least 10 stolen-base attempts against them at second. In contrast, this season his second base pop time is an astonishingly different and worse 2.10. This is well below the average and ranks 54th among 61 catchers with at least five stolen-base attempts against them at second. The fall from grace is conspicuous and is credited to slower arm strength and exchange time in 2018.

Pitch Framing and Advanced Metrics

While he has lost a demonstrable step in controlling the run game, he has declined noticeably in the pitch framing department, too. Though pitch framing is not a precise science to track, StatCorner does an excellent job at doing so. With that said, Vazquez was a “pitch framing king” in 2017, ranking with the 6th-best RAA (runs above average for pitch framing) in baseball at 8.3. He stole strikes by adding 0.69 calls per game for the Sox and helped the team considerably by getting them more favorable calls, which led to more favorable counts and even more outs.

In 2018, however, he has not provided nearly the same pitch framing value. With a 2,305-pitch sample, Vazquez has been among the worst catchers at gaining calls for his team. His RAA is an underwhelming -1.6 and he is actually costing his team -0.41 calls per game. That is a lot of lost value, especially when juxtaposed to last season.

Moving to advanced metrics, Vazquez was worth 12 DRS (defensive runs saved) in 2017, while he has been worth -3 DRS in 2018. Again, a big fall off from his previous year and the culprit seems to be he is not making as many even (40-60% chance of catching), unlikely (10-40%) or remote plays (1-10%). One has to keep in mind the fickle-nature of these defensive metrics, though, especially for a catcher. The above stats (pop time, CS% and pitch framing) are all more frightening, even if such a massive drop in DRS is somewhat meaningful and telling.

Conclusion

Before the past five days when Christian Vazquez’s bat was resurrected, there was a lot of attention on his lack of offensive production. While he has been scuffling with the bat, the negative regression with the defensive numbers appear much more concerning. This is a guy who is touted for his defensive acumen, with the run game, pitch framing and  his ability to call games.

There is not informative data regarding his ability to call games, so he is safe from criticism in that regard. Still, his defensive decline in 2018 is significant and worrisome. He will never be an above-average offensive force and the Sox were counting on him being a defensive stalwart to make up for that fact when they inked him to an extension in the offseason. We are not dealing with the most illuminating of sample sizes, but with what we do have there should be some concern. It is not like the drop-off has been small, rather, it has been large and universal in almost all areas of a catcher’s defensive game.

Perhaps this a blip and he will be able to revert to his old defensive self in the second-half and beyond. He is only 27, so this should not be the byproduct of old age, although catchers can get weathered crouching behind that plate for hours 100+ games a year. We will see what happens with his defensive numbers at season’s end, which are decidedly more interesting than his offensive ones.

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