A few months ago, before we knew that Gary Sanchez would bounce back and after we learned that Salvador Perez would miss the season, the prospects for the roster of the 2019 American League All-Star team at catcher looked pretty thin. Well, figuratively speaking of course, as many of them are literally quite portly. Not that long ago Mike Zunino and Robinson Chirinos were the best the AL had to offer on the catching front, and all due respect to them, but Joe Mauer and Ivan Rodriguez they are not.
But now we’re past Memorial Day and past the 1/3 mark of the 2019 season and not only Sanchez but James McCann, Omar Narvaez, Chrinos, Josh Phegley, Jonathan Lucroy, and Roberto Perez are all having very good seasons. Problem solved, crisis averted.
But the Yankees are playing the Red Sox this weekend, so you know where I’m going with this.
Joining those names is Christian Vazquez. Among that group, Vazquez ranks 2nd in fWAR, just behind McCann and just ahead of Sanchez. This is an enormously pleasant surprise to Boston fans and an odd curiosity to the rest of us, as Vazquez had 0.2 fWAR last season and only 5.7 combined over the four seasons prior to that.
Currently Vazquez has a .340 OBP (career average .302), .500 SLG (career average .358) and a 114 wRC+ (career average 73). Those are great numbers for any position, but if you’re a catcher, that makes you very valuable. If you’re a good defensive catcher, those numbers make you extremely valuable. And Vazquez has held up his end behind the plate as well: He’s 7th in MLB in pop time and in the top 75th percentile in pitch framing.
But he was always good defensively, so what gives with the bat? As you would suspect, there is a combination of factors at play:
- His chase rate is down 5%.
- He’s hitting the ball to the pull side and up the middle more often. (Take that, slap it to the opposite field crowd…)
- His line drive % and barrel % are way up.
But it has to be more than that. The above three bullet points can and will improve the bottom line, but his 2019 production is massively higher than his career norms.
To me, this is a teaching moment as the kids say, and some reminders about baseball that we forget sometimes:
One: A slight change in the batting stance or a simple tip from a coach or teammate can make a huge difference – small hinges swing big doors. Given that Vazquez’ performance against all pitches – fast balls and breaking balls is WAY up, this suggests to me he’s seeing and recognizing pitches more efficiently. A stance change or a great coaching tip may be at play here.
Two: Luck, randomness, whatever term you’d like to use, has way more influence on outcomes in baseball than we’d like to admit. For example, Vazquez’ batting average on balls in play last season was .237. In 2019, it’s .330. Of course, hitting more line drives as discussed will increase your BABIP, but .93 points more is a lot. There are balls finding holes for him this season that did not last season.
And lastly, baseball is hard. I mean really, really, hard. Not every player is Mike Trout, not every closer is Mariano Rivera and not every catcher is Johnny Bench. It takes many players, much time, quite often to become consistently good.
Whatever the case is, good for Christian Vazquez. It’s always good to see guys who’ve paid their dues to start doing well.
But of course, it’s the Red Sox, so hopefully not too well.
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