Red Sox catching was kind of a mess in 2016, with five catchers (Sandy León, Christian Vazquez, Ryan Hanigan, Blake Swihart, and Bryan Holaday) seeing some time behind the plate; cumulatively, Sox catchers put up a .253/.315/.365/.675 line. The average OPS for AL catchers was just .682, but the Sox numbers were heavily fueled by Sandy León’s tremendous two-month hot streak, which no one except perhaps his mother believed was the true León.
So far in 2017, while catching hasn’t been a position of strength for the Red Sox, it also is not a major weakness. Neither of the two catchers – León and Vazquez – have hit much, but neither have been complete black holes at the plate either. Vazquez started the season relatively well (OPS of .838 through April and May), but fell off an offensive cliff after that (OPS .456 since June 1). León has done the reverse, with a .672 OPS in April and May and a .779 in June. At the All-Star break, they had OPSes of .672 (León) and .660 (Vazquez), both well under the 2017 AL average of .705 for catchers.
More importantly, both have been good to excellent defensively, throwing out 37% (León) and 33% (Vazquez) of attempted steals — well above the league average of 27%. We can look at their framing abilities as well, using PITCHf/x data. To do this, I compared their ball/strike calls in each sub-region around the strike zone to the league average, and summed up the number of extra strikes or extra balls. (More details here.)
Christian Vazquez came to the big leagues with a reputation as an elite framer, and lived up to that reputation in 2014 (2.07 extra strikes per game; second in the major leagues) and 2016 (1.53; fifth in the majors). So far in 2017, he has continued his excellence with 1.48 extra strikes per game, again fifth in the majors. Charting his contribution, with regions in which he is more likely than average to get a strike shown in red, and those where he is less likely to get a strike called shown in blue:
Against both right- and left-handed batters, Vazquez excels in getting high pitches called strikes. Against left-handed batters, he is roughly average, or slightly worse, on the outside edge and down and inside, whereas to right-handed batters he is consistently good around the whole zone.
In the 49 games that Vazquez caught in the first half of the season, he has gained his pitchers over 63 strikes that a league-average catcher would not have. This is roughly the equivalent of eight extra runs. On the other hand, he also leads the league in passed balls, with seven. This may be part of the cost of framing; framing a pitch might sometimes mean leaving the bulk of his mitt inside the strike zone and trying to catch the pitch with the very tip of the mitt. In any case, his framing and defense at least partially overcome his weak offense.
Sandy León has consistently been about a league-average catcher, with just 0.31 extra strikes per game in 2016. Again in 2017, he has been just league average, with 0.10 extra strikes per game. However, he gets there in a somewhat unusual way.
To both left- and right-handed batters, León has excelled at framing high pitches, but at the cost of losing the lower part of the strike zone. As a result, he has gained his pitchers a grand total of four extra strikes over the season.
Considering their offensive, defensive, and framing contributions, León and Vazquez are solid if unspectacular catchers.
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Featured image courtesy of Jim Davis/Boston Globe