Red Sox will benefit from young catching depth
Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has heard all the stories about Christian Vazquez.
He knows the catcher grew up in Puerto Rico and learned his craft from the famed Molina brothers. He has heard about throws to second base that crackle through the air like a lightning bolt or the way Vazquez is able to frame pitches and steal called strikes for his pitcher.
But Dombrowski has yet to see Vazquez actually play beyond a few at-bats in Instructional League last week.
As the Red Sox embark on the work of building a roster for next season, catcher could be considered a position of strength or one of uncertainty.
When Vazquez tore a ligament in his right elbow in March and had season-ending Tommy John surgery in early April, carefully laid-out plans for the position went awry.
The Sox were counting on Vazquez’s game-changing defensive skills to prop up their pitching staff, particularly the starters. Sox pitchers had a 3.71 earned run average in the 54 games Vazquez caught in 2014 and opponents hit .255. He also threw out 15 of 29 base stealers.
In the still-evolving world of analyzing how effectively a catcher frames pitches, Vazquez was a rising star.
“It was a big loss when he got hurt,” Clay Buchholz said during the final week of the season. “Christian isn’t a normal catcher with everything he can do. He gained a lot of trust [in 2014] and his being gone was major.”
The Sox started the season with backup Ryan Hanigan as their starter. Sandy Leon, a fringy big leaguer obtained from the Washington Nationals on March 30, was the backup.
That combination did not last long. Hanigan broke a bone in his right hand on May 1 and the Sox had little choice but to call up 23-year-old Blake Swihart, a player they wanted to get a full season of experience in Triple A.
Swihart hit .274 with a .712 OPS in 84 games. In his last 22 games, starting on July 20 after being activated from the disabled list, Swihart hit .303 with a strong .805 OPS. The former first-round draft pick had 14 extra-base hits and 20 RBIs during that stretch.
Swihart’s batting average was fifth in the majors among the 28 catchers with at least 300 plate appearances and his OPS was 12th. A switch-hitter with speed and the potential for power, Swihart could become the rare catcher who brings above-average production to the lineup.
There are defensive concerns. Red Sox pitchers were charged with 43 wild pitches in the 688 innings Swihart was behind the plate. Only five American League catchers had more and all caught more innings.
Vazquez, by comparison, had 16 wild pitches in 458⅓ innings in 2014.
Wild pitches, by definition, are the fault of the pitcher. But the top catchers have an ability to block pitches and prevent runners from advancing.
“It’s something Blake will improve on because he works hard at it,” said bullpen coach Dana LeVangie, who doubles as the catching instructor. “It takes repetitions and experience.”
Swihart was charged with 16 passed balls, second in the American League. But 10 of those came catching knuckleballer Steven Wright and can be excused.
Swihart also threw out 16 of 57 base stealers, 28 percent. The league average was 32 percent.
“Swihart I liked a lot. We like a lot,” Dombrowski said on Tuesday. “You can see he needs to continue to grow from a defensive perspective but he works really hard at it. People in the organization tell me that’s how he is, he works very hard.
“He’s a switch-hitter who gives you offense. He’s athletic. He takes pride in his defense, too. There’s a lot of plusses in that regard. I like him a great deal.”
Vazquez hit .240 with a sub-par .617 OPS in 55 games in 2014. But he generated a 1.1 WAR when defense was factored in. Swihart had a 0.4 WAR.
Vazquez spent the bulk of the season with the major league team, doing rehab work and catching in the bullpen. He started Instructional League in September and will soon join San Juan in the Puerto Rico Winter League to get at-bats as a designated hitter.
The expectation is Vazquez will be ready to catch in spring training.
“People tell me he’s an outstanding defensive catcher,” Dombrowski said. “He handles the staff great [and] will contribute from an offensive perspective . . . People tell me I’m going to like Vazquez a great deal.”
The Sox also have Hanigan under contract for 2016 and Leon remains on the 40-man roster.
If Vazquez is fully recovered, cannon arm and all, Dombrowski could trade Swihart to improve the rotation. Or the Sox could consider switching him to a different position and take advantage of that athleticism.
Or the Sox could simply keep what they have. Rare is a team that has too many good catchers.
“I guess at this point just say, ‘OK, let’s go to spring training and see what happens,’ ” Dombrowski said.