The Red Sox’s plan at catcher for 2016 did not go exactly work out, to say the least. The team had two young, exciting options for starting catcher: Blake Swihart and Christian Vázquez. Swihart was the easy decision to start the season because Vázquez was still recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Swihart and Vázquez are two very different catchers. Swihart was expected to hit well and even run a little, while playing passable defense behind the plate. Vázquez was expected to be a below-average hitter who would be an excellent defensive catcher and pitch framer. It was expected to be a difficult decision once Vázquez returned. Both catchers were overqualifed to be backups. Had I been asked a year ago, I would have said that I expected one of them to be traded before the 2017 season began.
Of course, nothing worked out as planned because you can’t predict baseball. Swihart got demoted after only six games. It appeared that the team became disenfranchised with his defense really quickly. I generally believe that making a decision about a player after six games is insane, but if the coaches saw a big problem and the pitchers really did not like throwing to him, I can understand the rationale to a certain degree. Unlike hitting, I believe that defense is best evaluated through qualitative methods such as scouting.
That being said, demoting him in order to convert him to a left fielder was a surprising decision. Swihart’s bat is likely to play anywhere, and he definitely has the athleticism to play a corner outfield spot, but going from catcher to left fielder is a big drop in value. He also is not going to get better at catching without continued reps at the position. I am speculating that this decision was a long time in the making, but pulling the plug on Swihart’s catching six games into the season looked like a rash decision, even if the Red Sox’s decision makers had a good reason. Furthermore, any need for Swihart in left field was going to be temporary with Andrew Benintendi expecting to debut later that season.
The Red Sox were clearly willing to eat Vázquez’s offense in exchange for his defense. In 55 games played in 2014, he hit .240/.308/.309. That is a passable OBP for a catcher but with minuscule power. He still turned in 1.9 WARP despite his 70 wRC+, thanks to defense and pitch framing.
I am guessing that the original plan was that they would get the equivalent of a full season from Vázquez before Swihart would be ready to be called up. By, say, August 2015, the Red Sox would have a good handle on who Vázquez is and make a decision on whom to keep and whom to possibly trade. Unfortunately, Vázquez’s Tommy John surgery messed that plan up, and the team was forced to call up Swihart before he was probably ready.
Back to 2016, Vázquez was terrible. He was still quite good defensively, but his already poor offense got even worse. He hit .227/.277/.308, for a paltry 51 wRC+. That offense would not cut it even if Vázquez played defense like fellow Puerto Rican Yadier Molina in his prime. On July 5th, 2016, Vázquez was demoted.
The left field experiment for Swihart ended in disaster after he suffered an ankle injury that ended up ending his season. That injury is what led to the Red Sox calling up Sandy León. The Red Sox used to have an embarrassment of riches at catcher, and suddenly they had nothing.
That is, until León became a destroyer of worlds at the plate. He had been playing a month when Vázquez was sent down, and was hitting an incomprehensible, impossible .500/.556/.775 at the plate. There was no way that was going to continue, but it did make it easier to send Vázquez back down to Pawtucket.
Sure enough, it did not continue. Believe it or not, a .594 BABIP was not sustainable. From July 5th through the end of the season, León hit .274/.333/.420. A 97 wRC+ is still good for a catcher, though. Surprisingly, according to the advanced catcher metrics at Baseball Prospectus, his defense had declined. Still, had you told Red Sox fans that they were going to get 1.8 WARP from León when he was called up, they would have been thrilled.
The Red Sox now have a complicated situation at catcher with three candidates. I really have no idea in what direction the Sox will go in. They do not seem to believe in Swihart as a catcher, Vázquez can’t hit, and you don’t have to be an elite baseball analyst to see León’s regression coming a mile away.
Before 2016, León’s career slash line was .187/.258/.225, having played only 75 games in four seasons. His 31 wRC+ is more or less in line with a good-hitting pitcher. León appeared to make some real improvements in 2016, as indicated by his 24.7 percent line drive rate and 31.3 percent hard-hit rate, but he is extremely unlikely to enjoy a .392 BABIP again. There is no way that he hits anywhere close to a .310/.369/.476 line in 2017.
ZiPS projects a .246/.311/.367 triple-slash from León in 2017, and the Steamer projections are very similar. That adds up to a .294 wOBA, and quite frankly, seeing that he had a career .223 wOBA before 2016, I would take the under on that projection. It is entirely possible, even likely, that the .223 wOBA misrepresents León’s true talent since he played sporadically before 2016. Still, it seems unlikely that León’s true talent improved by over 70 points of wOBA.
Now, I am not what you would call a “soft factors” guy. That being said, even I would be concerned of what choosing León to be the everyday catcher would do to the confidence of Swihart and Vázquez. Those two have less than a season and a half worth of major-league experience, and neither one of them will get any better without playing time. Swihart can’t be the everyday left fielder with Benintendi there, either. It is basically catcher or nothing for him.
The Red Sox are arguably the best team in the AL, and possibly even both leagues (I would still take the Cubs). They can withstand some growing pains from Swihart or Vázquez in order to see if either is going to be the solution behind the plate for years to come. I believe the Red Sox to be a very smart organization, so I would like to believe that they would not throw away the potential of Swihart and Vázquez to chase the ghost of León’s 2016 fluke.
So whom would I choose to be the Red Sox everyday catcher? It is a tough call, but I am not sure that Vázquez’s bat will ever develop enough for him to be a starting catcher, so I would go with Swihart. It is not an easy decision because I am quite wary of his receiving skills myself, but I believe it is the best option. He can spot start in the outfield or at DH when he is not catching.
Make no mistake about it, it’s hard to feel good about committing to either of the three choices at catcher. It is going to be very interesting to see how the Red Sox play this in the coming months.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.