The Boston Red Sox started the season flush with talent at the catching position, little did they know that their fourth option would be their best. Rick Rowand looks at the new and improved Sandy Leon, focusing on the Red Sox catcher’s new stance and approach at the plate.
When the Red Sox announced that they had acquired catcher Sandy Leon from the Washington Nationals in March of 2015 for nothing more than cash considerations, the news was met by the citizens of Red Sox Nation with a collective shrug of the shoulders. Leon had signed with the Nats in 2007 as an international free agent out of Venezuela and spent the majority of his professional career traveling the backroads and byways of rural America in the minor leagues where he hit .236 in over 1800 at bats from 2007 to 2014. He also made a few brief stops in our nation’s capitol with 12 games in 2012, two in 2013 and 20 in 2014. He continued to under-impress at the plate where, at times, he threatened to eclipse the Mendoza line, but in the end seemed content with matching it.
Leon was acquired when Christian Vazquez went down for the year with a forearm injury in spring training, which turned out to require Tommy John surgery. Leon played in 33 games for the Sox until he was designated for assignment – he was out of options – when Blake Swihart returned from the DL in mid-June. The Sox didn’t think they would see Leon again in a Red Sox uniform. With his defensive and game calling reputation, they were sure another team would pick him up, but none did and Boston was able to assign him to Pawtucket. He was called up again in September and played eight more games for the Sox, and he was able to raise his average from .180 to .184 in his second stint at Fenway.
Leon started the 2016 season in Pawtucket, but was called up in June after a series of injuries left Boston depleted behind the plate. Many were surprised that Vazquez wasn’t the one called up because of his excellent defense. In addition, the general consensus was that he and Leon are charter members of the “it’s like having a pitcher in the lineup everyday” club and Vazquez has been long touted as the catcher of the future.
When Leon joined the Sox this season, no one was really expecting anyone other than the “good D, really bad O” Leon to show up. After all, his numbers in AAA in 2016 were just .243/.315/.339 in 115 at-bats. But, the Leon that showed up at the plate was no longer the automatic out that routinely shows up in the nine-hole on National League lineup cards. Instead, we were greeted with the new and vastly improved version of Sandy Leon who seemed to reach safely in every at-bat.
But how did Leon transition from his old non-hitting self to the new version which makes pitchers quake in fear and opposing managers intentional walk him when the situation warrants? How did Leon version 1.0 upgrade to Leon 2.0?
According to this article by Scott Lauber of ESPN, the change was due to the efforts of Eddie Perez, his manager in the Venezuelan Winter League with Tigres de Aragua, and Carlos Guillen, the Tigres general manager. Perez receives most of the credit for getting Leon comfortable in a more upright stance and for being more aggressive at the plate. As Ian York demonstrated, his hitting hot zones have totally changed from what they were in 2014 and 2015. Before, he couldn’t hit a fastball (or hit any type of pitch for that matter) for power. Now he actually has hot zones!
A lot of that was because of his stance. As you can see below, he is much more upright with his hands higher than they used to be. This has given him better plate coverage because it allows his hands to be freer than they were in his low crouch and he can adjust better to pitch location, especially outside the zone. He’s able to adjust to balls higher in the zone and is much less likely to swing under them, wasting at-bats with pop-ups. Notice the positioning of his feet which keeps him balanced when he needs to reach for a pitch because he’s better positioned to move his front foot in to adjust to the pitch.
“I don’t know if it was Carlos Guillen who told him or somebody else who told him, ‘Look, you need to go out and swing the bat, he was taking too many pitches for strikes. I think Carlos said, ‘Just go out there and swing, man. I know he’s a patient hitter. I know he takes a lot of walks, too. But that’s the biggest difference I see from years ago to now. He goes out there and swings.” better plate coverage theory”
Let’s look at some numbers to see if Leon is indeed being more aggressive at the plate and if the better plate coverage theory holds up. Using FanGraphs’ PITCHf/x plate discipline charts, a few things stick out. The first is that Leon is swinging at roughly 3.5% more pitches outside the zone than he did last year, but he is making contact when swinging at those pitches slightly more often than last season. What really stands out is what’s happening within the strike zone. Leon is swinging at 5% fewer pitches in the zone, but that selectivity is paying off as he has raised his contact rate on balls he does swing at by 5%.
Even though Leon is swinging at fewer strikes, he is being more selective in the strike zone and he has learned that you don’t need to swing at a pitch just because it’s a strike. Not until you have two strikes on you anyway. He is more knowledgeable of his personal strike zone and only swings at strikes inside his zone on the first two strikes that he has a chance to do something with. This has helped to make him more effective and dangerous as a hitter.
Leon is also driving the ball much better than he ever has. As of August 28, he has seven homers and 13 doubles in 47 games. His current line drive percentage is 4.9% higher than last year and his ground ball percentage is 4.9% lower. As we know, line drives are less likely to result in outs than ground balls.
Hitting the ball hard also tends to result in more bases reached, and Leon has certainly improved in that area. Last season his soft hit, medium hit and hard hit percentages were 29.3%, 56.5% and 14% respectively. This season Leon is attacking the ball, and is no longer the passive hitter who waits for the pitch come to him. His soft, medium and hard hit percentages are drastically different than last season. His soft hit% is down to 20.3%. Medium hit% is down to 42.9% and, drum roll please, his Hard hit% has jumped all the way up to 37%. In other words, he has been destroying the baseball.
I seriously doubt he will sustain this level of play for the rest of the season based on his otherworldly .455 BABIP, but I’ll happily take Sandy Leon hitting for a .300 average, and gladly raise a glass to Eddie Perez and Carlos Guillen.