For the last 9 years since being drafted in the 9th round by the Red Sox, the same question has loomed over Christian Vazquez: Can he hit well enough to be an every day catcher in the majors? In this two part series, I look at the numbers behind Vazquez's defense and offense.
His expectations have always been that his game would be built around the cannon attached to his shoulder. He has demonstrated the ability to be a borderline elite defensive catcher when healthy, and has developed into an excellent pitch framer and game caller.
When evaluating Vazquez I’m mainly going to ignore the last two seasons. He had Tommy John surgery right before the 2015 season started, and while he played 57 games last season, he was still building back up his pre-surgery strength and confidence. He batted a meager .227/.227/.308 in ’16, which many people accepted as Vazquez’s offensive ceiling.
Not me. I have always believed he could make that leap at the major league level, much like Jackie Bradley Jr has in the last 18 months. In his first healthy season since his surgery, we are going to see a completely different hitter, and through 5 games and 18 trips to the plate, it looks like I may be right.
Before I break down the difference in his approach at the plate this season, it’s important to discuss what makes Vazquez’s value so high behind the plate. There are a lot of different metrics for analyzing a players defensive skills, but unfortunately there isn’t one stat that tells the whole story.
I’m going to focus on the percent of runners he guns down on the base paths, his CS%, and FanGraph’s defensive value above average, a stat that effectively turns good defensive plays into runs relative to the defensive production of an average major league player. It’s kind of like WAR but only based on defense. Sort of.
Looking at Vazquez’s ’14 season in the 50 games he started for the Red Sox after his mid year call up, he caught 15 runners stealing. Extrapolated out for a full season as the starter (I’ll call it 120 starts) he would have caught 33 runners. As a comparison, Buster Posey last season, widely regarded as one of the best defensive catchers in the game, caught 28 runners in 123 games.
Vazquez this season has already has 3 caught out of 5 runners in 5 games this year, a success rate of 60% (it probably should have been 4 out of 5 but Farrell chose not to challenge a bad call last week). Sandy Leon last season had a CS% of 41% in 74 games. Vazquez's 60% would be an excellent rate, if he can maintain this pace over the remainder of the season.
Looking at his defensive value above the average catcher, Vazquez in ’14 was worth 7.8 runs in his 54 games. His teammate, Leon, had 7.9, .1 more in 20 more games. Buster Posey in 2016 had 10.8 in 123 games. These limited sample sizes are a killer here, but considering that Vazquez in ’14 had 72% of Posey’s defensive average in 69 less games it makes you wonder just how good his defense could be in a full season.
Through his incredibly limited sample size this season, Vazquez looks like the real deal, both at the plate and behind it. In addition to his 60% CS rate, he’s already collected 1.4 defensive runs saved in 5 games. Assuming Sandy Leon is the real deal and Vazquez stays at #2 on the depth chart he’s on pace for somewhere around 15 defensive runs saved in 54 games.
In short, he is really really good defensively. Later this week, I’ll discuss whether he can back that defense up with some major league quality hitting.