Christian Vázquez was on a tear at the very beginning of the 2021 season, batting .382 with two homers over his first nine games. Sure, sample size matters, but this felt reassuring — that Vazquez had found something, after a 2019 breakout season (.276 with 23 homers) was followed up with a .283 average in a 60-game 2020 season.
When asked in April if he felt he had solidified himself as one of the best all-around catchers in baseball, Vázquez responded, “Yes. Three times.”
Yet 2021 in its totality preached differently. Vázquez hit just four homers over his next 129 games and ended the season with a .258 batting average and a .659 OPS. Furthermore, he was inconsistent behind the plate.
However, the Red Sox’ catching situation isn’t exactly a flaw — it’s not a strength, but not a flaw either.
The Red Sox recently solidified Vázquez’s status on the squad by picking up his $7 million team option for 2022. It continues a relationship that was forged when the Sox selected him in the ninth round of the 2008 draft.
When the deal was final, Vázquez tweeted out “Dirty Water,” asserting not only his commitment to the Red Sox but his love for the city.
But being one of the best all-around catchers requires defense, the main job of the position. Vázquez was known as a defense-first catcher when he was coming up through the minors. That part of his game has lagged.
Base runners swiped 55 bags against Vázquez (in 73 chances), the third-most in baseball in 2021. Vázquez also could be lackadaisical behind the plate, leading to 10 passed balls, tied for second-most in the majors.
Nate Eovaldi preferred working with backup Kevin Plawecki or even Connor Wong over Vázquez, something that mirrored the 2018 season when veteran Sandy León was the preferred option for parts of the rotation over Vázquez.
That, plus the bat not coming through the way it did the two previous years, makes it tough to put Vázquez in that upper echelon of catchers. Given the shelf life of a catcher — he is 31 — it’s tough to see Vázquez reaching that peak.
But is he solid at what he does? Certainly. That should be the bar.
“We know this is a really hard position to find somebody who not only is physically capable, but is also just mentally and emotionally capable of carrying that load,” chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said at the end of the year. “And we have a guy that has done that all the way to the end of the season.
“He is a really important guy to us. It’s a hard position to check all the boxes.”
If the Red Sox had let Vázquez walk — which was suggested in some corners of Sox fandom — who would be a better option? Consider the free agent catchers this offseason: Manny Piña, Yan Gomes, Luke Maile, Stephen Vogt, Pedro Severino, Jeff Mathis, Rob Brantly, Roberto Pérez, Wilson Ramos, Jose Lobaton, Robinson Chirinos, Kurt Suzuki, Andrew Knapp, Chance Sisco, León, Austin Romine.
Vázquez is better than all of them, and he has the rapport with and trust of manager Alex Cora that has reaped positive results when the Sox need it most. Vázquez hit .375 in the Division Series and was a .326 hitter in high-leverage situations during the regular season.
Plawecki hit .287 this year and was Eovaldi’s go-to guy. Despite the Sox practically splitting time between Vázquez and Plawecki down the stretch, Plawecki is still a backup. A solid one, certainly, but not an everyday starter. That would expose him behind the dish, where he threw out just three base runners in 40 chances.
The Sox have figured out a way to use both. A way in which both can be solid — not stellar — at what they do. That’s sufficient enough heading into 2022.
Primary 2021 starter: Christian Vázquez
Projected 2022 starter: Christian Vázquez
Major league depth: Kevin Plawecki, Ronaldo Hernández, Connor Wong
Prospect to watch: Nathan Hickey
Read the rest of the Around the Horn series
- Here’s where things stand with the Red Sox rotation
- Where things stand with the Red Sox bullpen — the free agents and the returners — as the offseason begins
- Between Bobby Dalbec and Triston Casas, first base will get a second look from Red Sox
- For Red Sox, there are a lot of moving parts at second base
- Xander Bogaerts is an institution as Red Sox shortstop — but for how much longer?
- Defensive flaws aside, Rafael Devers is seen as a Red Sox cornerstone at third base