Is Christian Vazquez Blessed At The Plate?

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Boston Red Sox's Christian Vazquez hits an RBI ground-rule double against the Houston Astros in the fourth inning of a baseball game Friday, July 11, 2014, in Houston. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez came to the majors with a reputation as a defensive wizard with a weak bat. His offense in 2014 (.240/.308/.309/.617 for an OPS+ of 73) supported that. He lost all of 2015 to Tommy John surgery, and came back in 2016 to put up even worse offensive numbers (.227/.277/.308/.585, OPS+ of 55). Even though he did show defensive excellence – especially in pitch framing, where Vazquez exhibits elite skills – that level of offense made it hard to justify keeping him in the majors; certainly not as a starting catcher, especially since Sandy León put up a completely unexpected .845 OPS (122 OPS+) in 2016, and also is a very good defensive catcher.

At the 2017 All-Star break, neither Vazquez nor León were putting up impressive offensive numbers. They had OPSes of .672 (León) and .660 (Vazquez), both well under the 2017 AL average of .705 for catchers. Since then, León has continued his offensive mediocrity (on the season: .225/.287/.348/.635, 66 OPS+), but Vazquez has improved significantly. He is now batting a respectable .301/.341/.423/.764 (99 OPS+) with five home runs – four of them coming after the All-Star break.

Here is an overall look at Vazquez’s batting zone preferences this year. He prefers to hit inside pitches, and has surprisingly good numbers on pitches outside the strike zone (the grey polygon shows the de facto strike zone as it has been called this year).

 

To break his batting down further, I split pitches into three families (fastballs, breaking pitches, and offspeed pitches), and looked at Vazquez’s performance relative to all right-handed major-league batters; red shows better than average performance in a particular zone, blue shows worse. His three years in the majors are shown here:

Again, it’s easy to see that Vazquez prefers to hit inside fastballs and breaking pitches, and often goes outside the strike zone to reach them. He also goes outside the zone to hit offspeed pitches, especially low and outside, and has very poor success against breaking or offspeed pitches in the upper half of the strike zone.

Looking at his trends against the different pitch types over his career, and over the course of this season, shows that he has typically done better against breaking and offspeed pitches than against fastballs.

His improvement in the second half of this season has been mainly because he has done better against fastballs, which are by far the most common pitch type he (like most batters) will see. Hitting offspeed pitches very well doesn’t help an overall average when those are only a few percent of the pitches he faces.

Vazquez has relatively poor plate discipline; he swings at 28.8% of pitches outside the strike zone (again, based on the de facto strike zone as it’s actually called). That’s not great, but not terrible either; it puts him 91st of 296 batters with at least 300 plate appearances in 2017. Among Red Sox batters with at least 60 plate appearances, Vazquez is sixth in O-swing%, behind Xander Bogaerts, Josh Rutledge, Eduardo Núñez, Marco Hernandez, and of course the late, unlamented Pablo Sandoval.

On the other hand, Vazquez has an exceptionally high success rate on those swings, as we can see from the zone breakdowns above. He has hit successfully on 13.1% of his swings at out-of-zone pitches; the average for all batters is just 5.8%. Here is how Vazquez and other Red Sox batters (with at least 300 plate appearances) performed in terms of O-swing% and hits per out-of-zone swing, compared to all other major-league batters (300 PA-plus). I’ve also labeled some of the more interesting outliers:

Vazquez would probably be a better hitter if he laid off more pitches outside the zone, but his relatively poor plate discipline hasn’t hurt him as much as it would most other batters.

FanGraphs lists Vazquez as contributing 1.6 WAR, putting him 16th of 26 catchers with 300 plate appearances or more. However, FanGraphs doesn’t include pitch framing in their estimate of catcher WAR, noting that “for this reason, catcher WAR is probably the least precise of all of the positions.” Vazquez is an elite framer, gaining his pitchers about 110 strikes more than a league-average catcher would have this year; that translates to about 14 extra runs, or about 1 to 1.5 wins that aren’t included in his WAR. This still doesn’t put Vazquez into the overall elite catcher level, but it certainly makes him a nicely above-average catcher at barely more than the MLB minimum salary.

Can Vazquez keep up this level of production? His BABIP of .358 is a little on the high side and suggests some regression, but not too much. The ability to make quality contact on pitches outside the strike zone is probably a genuine, and very useful, skill. The biggest difference between this year and his previous seasons is that he is having about league-average success against fastballs. Vazquez is 27 years old. Since catchers often peak offensively a little later than other position players, it’s realistic to hope that this is the Christian Vazquez we will see for at least the next several seasons.

Featured image courtesy of Associated Press

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Ian is an immunologist and virologist who lives in Atlanta with his wife and two sons. Most of his time is spent driving his kids to baseball and soccer games, during which he indoctrinates his children on the glories of Pedro Martinez, the many virtues of the Montreal Expos, and other important information.

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