The Precarious Red Sox Catching Situation
Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (Oct. 17, 2018 – Source: Bob Levey/Getty Images North America)
When your team wins 108 games and the World Series, it just seems greedy to talk about how they could improve. If that is the case, so be it.
The truth is the Boston Red Sox could stand to upgrade the catcher position more than any other team in baseball.
Last season, Red Sox backstops accumulated the lowest fWAR (-2.1) and wRC+ (44) in the league. For reference, the closest teams to these abysmal marks are the Arizona Diamondbacks (-0.4 fWAR) and Baltimore Orioles (57 wRC+), respectively. In other words, Boston’s catchers are in a league of their own.
Sure, one cannot discount the intangibles. By all accounts, the Sox triumvirate of Sandy Leon, Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart possess some combination of game management, pitch calling and raw potential (in the case of the latter). Rick Porcello even said in regards to Leon that “he’s the best catcher I’ve ever thrown to.”
Objectively speaking, though, this group does not inspire much confidence. With offensive impotence at such an insolent level, it would behoove the Red Sox to search for an upgrade. Plus, it would be pretty easy. The Red Sox just need an average, or even slightly below-average, backstop to improve immensely.
While Leon has a sparkling catcher’s ERA, his .511 OPS ranks dead last among 313 MLB players with at least 250 plate appearances in 2018. Among hitters with a somewhat decent sample, he is far and away the worst offensive producer. He finds himself behind the infamous 2018 Chris Davis (.539 OPS) in that category. If you are into this sort of thing, his -0.9 fWAR is the 7th-lowest in that same group. Moreover, there was a real question if Boston would tender Leon a contract a couple of months ago.
Moving to Vazquez, his injury-riddled, glaringly regressed 2018 campaign is not one for the 28-year-old to remember on an individual level. He did not perform much better than Leon with the stick in ’18. His .540 OPS is the third-worst among batters with the 250 plate appearance qualification. He went from a league-average hitter the season before last to whatever disparaging adjective you want to mentally place here.
Oddly, the formerly adjudged defensive stalwart statistically declined in important categories such as controlling the run game, pitch framing and sheer defensive metrics. While we were witness to the occasional and idiosyncratic 500-foot Vazquez moonshot, it was, again, a lost season for the recently-extended catcher.
Honestly, there is reason to be relatively bullish on Vazquez. His 2018 BABIP is incredibly low and unsustainable at .237. While he is probably not the league-average hitter he was in ’17, he most definitely is better than the guy presented in ’18. He also got better down the stretch and in the postseason. As life exists, he has the best shot to be Boston’s starting catcher in 2019. Still, Steamer projects him for an uninspiring 79 wRC+ and 1.1 fWAR for next year.
Lastly, Swihart, the versatile, utility man, is touted as a raw but talented hitter. The victim of inconsistent playing time, the conventional wisdom asserts his .613 OPS in 2018 could be improved in a big way next season. All it will take is more playing time, which is no guarantee because of the conspicuous defensive mistrust Boston’s brass has in him. Additionally, his offensive prospects may be a little inflated and misguided. Based on how he actually hit the ball last year (xwOBA), his offensive production should be worse.
It is not even clear that Swihart offers the most offensive potential among the three. Vazquez has generated league-average offense in his career. For that matter — even though it quite possibly is the greatest statistical anomaly in sports history — so has Sandy Leon. Right now, Steamer anticipates Swihart’s 2019 to consist of a 75 wRC+ and 0.1 fWAR in a little over 100 plate appearances.
This 2015 nostalgia, littered in the what could have been with the once talented former top prospect, may be nothing more than that.
To summarize, Boston’s catching situation is not all that savory. Vazquez is a beacon of relative hope, but there arguably should be a reinforcement for this position.
The Red Sox do not need to gut their already scarce farm system to land a J.T. Realmuto. They do not need to break the bank for Yasmani Grandal. A guy like Jonathan Lucroy, who is coming off a down season with the Oakland Athletics, would suffice.
The 32-year-old free agent was almost a full win more valuable than any of Boston’s catchers last season. Two seasons before he was All-Star level and a near five-win player. Steamer prophesies a 93 wRC+ and 1.4 fWAR for Lucroy in ’19. That is an upgrade on any of the current Red Sox backstops’ projections.
He is not slated as a top 50 free agent on MLB Trade Rumors or Fangraphs. Lucroy received a one-year, $6.5M deal from the A’s last year and followed that with the worst year of his baseball life. It is logical he would command less than the paltry deal he got last season or, at least, around the ballpark. It would not cost the Red Sox, which are consumed in the reliever market, much at all to make a monumental upgrade and needed insurance.
The team’s bullpen is in an arguably better situation than its catching position. Yet it seems there is utter silence on this matter. Maybe the intangibles these guys’ bring is so valuable that the Red Sox can put up with their quantifiable inefficiency. Objectively, however, the reigning World Series Champions could use another catcher.