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Sandy Leon: King of the midseason surprise

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As his small sample size continues to grow, is the hot streak of Sandy Leon more than just a fluke?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It was only June when two of the three catchers that the Red Sox had been relying on for the 2016 season, Blake Swihart and Ryan Hanigan, both got injured and needed to be put on the disabled list. With only Christian Vazquez, and his struggling bat, to hold down the position, the Red Sox were looking for someone else to help them get through the season.

Then Sandy Leon was called up.

Since then, Sandy Leon has been one of the biggest surprises of the 2016 season in Major League Baseball. He hasn't simply been helping the Red Sox through the season, he's been a major force both offensively and defensively.

Throughout his career, the 27-year-old Venezuelan has never been a standout, spending most of his playing time in the minors and even being designated for assignment by the Red Sox last year. That made it easy to dismiss the early success of Sandy Leon this season as a fluke that would quickly die, but at nearly 200 PA, Leon's small sample size is growing to the point of making his abilities behind the plate an actual reality.

Currently batting .350 with an OBP of .405, is the magic of Sandy Leon for real? Chili Davis seems to think so.

Delving into some more advanced statistics shows that Sandy's hitting might be coming from actual skill rather than from luck and small sample size. One of the aspects of Leon's hitting that draws interest is his percentage of balls hit for line drives. At 25.2%, Leon's line drive rate is tied for 29th in the MLB among batters with at least 190 PA. That's quite impressive for a catcher who was expected to play the entire season in Triple A. However, even more impressive is his BABIP. Hitting for a whopping .430, Sandy Leon leads the majors in BABIP for players with not only 190 PA, but still leads the category when the PA requirement is dropped to as low as 70.

So, what does that say about Sandy Leon's hitting? When he hits the ball, he hits it hard and manages to get on base. Hitting balls for line drives is a skill that shows itself in Leon's amazing ability to get on base when he puts a ball in play. Even if Leon doesn't have as large of a sample size as the players who have been starting all season, it can't be denied that there's something going on.

The question on everyone's mind is where did this breakout come from? Looking at the differences in how he hit the ball last year and this year makes it clear. For starters, his line drive rate off hard pitches jumped from 19.6 percent for the 2015 season to 28.2 percent so far this season. Additionally, Leon is hitting hard pitches an average of 5.1 mph faster than he did last season, as well as a 9.6-mph increase off breaking balls.

Another very notable difference between Leon's hitting last season versus this season is hit ability to hit LHP. Since last season, his line drive rate and exit velocity off southpaws have improved significantly, with increases of 13.9 percentage points and 8.9 mph, respectively. Another notable difference against LHP is that his whiff percentage has dropped 5.4 percentage points.

However, his batting is not the only reason that Sandy Leon has been a pleasant surprise for the Red Sox this year. Leon currently holds a .996 fielding percentage, committing only 1 error throughout the course of the over 400 innings he's played this year. Add in the fact that Leon catches for the knuckleballer Steven Wright (with whom he "knuckle bumps" after games), and this feat becomes even more impressive. Even the beloved Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek wouldn't catch for the long time knuckleball pitcher Tim Wakefield.

Also impressive is Leon's throwing ability. With a caught-stealing rate of 43.3 percent, Leon throwing out a runner at second, or even at first, has become the norm for anyone who observes the Red Sox.

Before his offensive explosion this season, Leon's above-average defense used to be his only selling point. But those "above-average" skills are slowly becoming excellent, and in combination with his offensive breakout, the Red Sox are definitely more than happy with the performance of Sandy Leon.

In reality, Sandy's hot streak has already started to cool down from when he started his major league stint batting well over .400. And, as much as Red Sox fans would love to see it, he probably won't be winning a batting title any time soon. However, what matters in the case of Sandy Leon is how far he has exceeded expectations in a position that was looking to become a problem for the Red Sox back in June.

In a lineup that includes players such as David Ortiz and Mookie Betts, it's easy for other Red Sox hitters to be forgotten. But, somehow Sandy Leon has made a name for himself, and that in and of itself is pretty impressive.

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Sara Stokesbury is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow her on Twitter at @sarastokes14.