Christian Vázquez’s hot start to the 2021 season is a distant memory, as the Red Sox’s primary catcher has struggled mightily at the plate. What will it take for him to bounce back?
This last week has not been the best time for the Red Sox. They just ended a five-game losing streak on Wednesday, gave up their hold on the first place spot in the American League East and although they made a few moves at the trade deadline, some of their stiffest competitors made huge splashes to fortify themselves for the stretch run.
Although nay-sayers may point to this as the beginning of the end for a Red Sox team that has drastically outperformed its preseason expectations, there is still plenty of time to right the ship. That said, during this rough patch the performances of players who have underwhelmed this season have stood out a bit more strikingly than when the Red Sox were rattling off win after win.
Christian Vázquez has been one of those underperforming players, unfortunately, particularly when it comes to offense. Although he isn’t expected to be one of the team’s most fearsome hitters, often lining up in the bottom half of the lineup, Vázquez made significant strides with his offensive game during the 2019 and 2020 seasons. He hit 23 home runs and was worth 3.5 fWAR in 2019, and he posted a 115 wRC+ during the shortened 2020 campaign. Those may not be All-Star caliber numbers — though at the catching position they arguably are — but when you added in his strong framing work, Vázquez stood out as one of the better catchers in baseball in those two seasons.
He looked to be on track to take another step forward at the very beginning of this season. In his first 26 plate appearances in early April, Vázquez posted a .458/.500/.833 slash line, which was good for a 259 wRC+. That obviously was far from sustainable, but even as we waited for him to come back from the stratosphere, the expectation was that he could at least settle in at a comfortably above average offensive clip.
Unfortunately, his fall from that incredible level has been much more pronounced and hasn’t really let up since April. From April 10 through last night’s action, Vázquez has only managed a 62 wRC+ while slashing .243/.291/.305. His weighted on-base average (wOBA) also hovered in dismal territory during that stretch (.265) while he walked at just a 6.1 percent clip. Any of the power he displayed in 2019 and 2020 also evaporated, with only two home runs during his 326 plate appearances in this stretch, with his most recent coming on June 27. In total, Vázquez is sitting at a 76 wRC+ with a .258/.306/.343 slash line across 356 plate appearances.
Now, this is the point where I want to tell you that those numbers mask strong underlying metrics that point to a bounce-back, but I’ll have to disappoint you. Vázquez is in the bottom third percentile in the league in expected wOBA, according to Baseball Savant. To be clear, that’s not third as in the bottom 33 percent; it’s the bottom three percent. In addition, Vázquez’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) isn’t all that bad, sitting at a relatively pedestrian .309.
Based on those numbers, Vázquez is performing how he “should be” using just his metrics from this season, but we know that he can and has hit better in his career. So what’s been at the heart of Vázquez’s struggles? As you might imagine, there is more than one answer.
One of the main culprits has been a lack of effective contact. Vázquez is pretty adept at serving balls up the middle or the other way for base hits, but he’s not squaring offerings up all that often. According to Baseball Savant, he is in the bottom 11th percentile in the league in average exit velocity and the bottom seventh percentile in barrel rate. With so few hard-hit balls, Vázquez just hasn’t generated any power, leading to an expected slugging percentage in the bottom ninth percentile of MLB. It’s not just his expected slugging that’s taken a hit, of course. Vázquez is actually slugging at a .343 rate and he has all of 20 extra-base hits all year.
Without any semblance of power, Vázquez’s other offensive problems look that much worse. For example, he is in the bottom 17th percentile in walk rate (6.2 percent), sitting more than two percentage points below league average, according to Baseball Savant. In fairness, he had nearly the exact same walk rate in 2019, but he also hit 23 home runs that season and slugged .477. Considering walks have never been a huge part of his game, it’s unsurprising that Vázquez wouldn’t be taking free passes, but, as I said, that can be forgiven when other cylinders are clicking.
Interestingly, Vázquez isn’t really suffering from an increased level of strikeouts. Maybe its due to his keen eye as a catcher, but Vázquez has an above average strikeout rate relative to the rest of the league and his mark this season (18.5 percent) is below what he produced in both 2019 (19.4 percent) and 2020 (22.8 percent). Why his ability to lay off pitches doesn’t translate to more walks is a question for which I can’t find an answer. Unfortunately, that strikeout rate could always creep back up, especially since Vázquez does possess a below average chase rate.
Although the veteran backstop hasn’t hit well against pretty much all pitches, his primary nemeses have been sliders and sinkers. He has produced a negative five run value against sliders and a negative four run value against sinkers. He’s also faced those two pitches more than any others besides four-seam fastballs, against which he’s been fine.
Trying to find a solution to Vázquez’s offensive struggles has to be at least on the to-do list for the Red Sox down the stretch, even if it’s not the top priority. He doesn’t need to be a top of the order guy, but getting back toward league average would go a long way. Vázquez has managed to keep himself slightly above replacement level with his solid framing and he has gotten off to a decent start to August (.333 batting average in 12 plate appearances), but neither of those considerations means much in the face of a largely underwhelming body of work.
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