Perception doesn’t do Christian Vazquez justice
Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com (Sept. 25, 2017 – Source: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images North America)
Pitchers and catchers have reported to Fort Myers for the Boston Red Sox. The 2018 MLB season, marked with unlimited possibilities, is right around the corner and the excitement is palpable. Spring training storylines are bound to be plentiful, running rampant in the coming weeks. Before that point, though, I think it is appropriate to address something going into camp. Christian Vazquez, the Boston Red Sox 27-year-old catcher, is underrated of sorts.
Obviously, saying a player is “underrated” is subjective terminology. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, just like saying a player is underrated is. With that said, it feels like the perception of Vazquez’s value, especially his 2017 season, is, in a sense, ignored. So, this post is going to talk about him, regarding what he did last year and how he projects to do in 2018.
For starters, the Red Sox’ backstop exceeded everybody’s expectations for his offensive production last season. He posted a solid .290/.330/.404 clip, translating into a 93 wRC+. As a catcher, all of those stats are above-average. In 2017, catchers, as a whole, produced a .245/.315/.406 line and 89 wRC+. Coming from a guy who previously put up a 70 and 52 wRC+ in two respective partial major league seasons, this was a very unexpected, yet welcomed, development.
He cut his strikeout rate by roughly three percent, dropping from 21.2% in 2016 to 18.6% in 2017. I don’t need to explain why this is a good thing. Meanwhile, his walk rate actually declined a bit from the year prior, as Vazquez continued to draw free bases at a very low rate. The real source of his improved numbers was his ability to hit the ball for average and, partially, hit for a tad more power, as well.
In ’15 and ’16 he collected batting averages of .240 and .227, while this year, as aforementioned, he brought it all the way to .290. This, however, was most likely not the result of better contact. He did not hit the ball any harder than he has in previous years, seeing his average exit velocity actually drop in 2017. Further, his percentage of hard hit contact went down while his soft hit contact went up.
Unfortunately, it appears the 5’9″ catcher was helped by his unsustainable .348 BABIP, (the league average for catchers in 2017 was .290) which likely speaks more to batted ball luck than actual skill. He does not have the track record of posting BABIPs remotely similar to this nor does he have the speed where it may seem feasible for him to post a .350ish BABIP in the future. I think it is safe to say Vazquez may experience regression in the batting average department going forward, thereby hurting his offensive output.
One thing he did do very well last season, though, was cutting his IFFB% (infield fly balls) by more than half. In fact, his 2017 4.1 IFFB% was the fifth-lowest among the 33 starting catchers who made at least 300 plate appearances. This is evidently a positive thing because infield fly balls are essentially automatic outs.
If he contributes anything close to average offensive production, he is a very solid everyday player. Yet, the underrated value of Vazquez is not contingent on his offensive profile, though it certainly does not hurt. His real calling card is behind the plate.
Vazquez is a dominant defensive catcher in numerous categories. To start, using 700 innings as a qualifier, he ranked fifth among all catchers with 12 DRS (defensive runs saved). DRS is one of the few components that go into defensive WAR for a catcher but it is not all-encompassing. Admittedly, he did not rank as well in other important categories, making out more average that great. Overall, he graded as a roughly average defensive catcher in 2017, according to Fangraphs’ defensive WAR. There’s merit to those numbers, yet there are numbers outside of WAR that are important to take into a consideration.
For example, he had the fourth-best caught stealing percentage among all qualifying catchers in 2017. He threw out 21 runners in 50 attempts, good for a .420 percentage. Comparatively, fellow Red Sox catcher, Sandy Leon, ranked with the eighth-best caught stealing percentage, throwing out 18 of 49 (.367). There’s value for limiting runners from advancing bases and Vazquez was one of the best at it.
Additionally, he is one of the most excellent pitch framers in the majors. Pitch framing does not get calculated into Fangraphs WAR, but if it did, we could be looking at one of the top catchers in baseball, at least in terms of 2017 production. He ranked sixth in RAA (runs above average) with 8.3, according to StatCorner’s Catcher report. The baseball industry has become less enamored with the concept of pitch framing, citing its statistical volatility as a hinderance to its explanatory value and predictably. So, take pitch framing numbers with a grain of salt but be aware of the fact the Red Sox probably have one of the most-gifted framers in baseball. His 3.6 RAA in 2016, placing near the top of the leaderboard, suggests this is perhaps a retainable skill for him.
Admittedly, when I started this article I think I had a distorted perception that Vazquez was more undervalued than he actually is. He’s a solid defensive catcher but there are significant concerns with the sustainability of his bat going forward. However, if he remains an average hitter, like he was last year, then the Red Sox have themselves an underrated commodity on their hands. Depending on what your position is on the value of pitch framing numbers, then they may have a really underrated commodity. He’s just probably going to need another way to get to a 93 wRC+ than relying on a .350 BABIP in 2018.