It’s happening again – at least through seven games.
A year ago, the Red Sox’ rise atop the American League East was fueled in no small measure by the unexpected impact made by catcher Sandy Leon, whose impossible-to-predict offensive eruption transformed a position of weakness into one of strength.
Somehow, a catcher who entered 2016 ranked as one of the worst hitters in major league history captured a Midas touch for a couple of months that turned virtually any form of contact into a timely hit. This year, through seven games, that strange magic is once again present – and this time, it is being shared by both Leon and his fellow backstop, Christian Vazquez.
On Tuesday, Vazquez went an improbable 4-for-4 with a double and triple. (Video.)
He flicked a slider to right for a soft single; he turned on a 92 miles-per-hour fastball and drove a Wall-scraper to left – a well struck ball that nonetheless might be an out in any park but Fenway; he fisted a Darren O’Day frisbee to shallow centerfield and off the glove of second baseman Jonathan Schoop for a single; and finally, he got his hands inside to hit a soft liner down the right-field line that barely eluded a sliding Seth Smith for a triple.
They all, of course, register as hits in the box score. Moreover, the mere fact of Vazquez taking some tough pitches and putting them in play reflects on some of the adjustments he made to become a more valuable hitter.
“From the beginning [of spring training], he was under control,” said assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez. “He eliminated the leg kick. He’s under control with his lower half, so his hands are going to work. Right away, when he made those adjustments, he was going to compete.”
And compete he has. Vazquez now has reached base in all seven plate appearances this year, having gone 5-for-5 while getting hit by a pair of pitches. In the last 100 years, he is just the second Red Sox to reach base in every plate appearance of his first two starts of the year, joining Walt Dropo – who reached in eight straight appearances over two games to open the 1950 campaign.
For Vazquez, the development is a gratifying one. He lost his job as the Sox’ starting catcher – and ultimately ended up back in Triple A Pawtucket – because of his offensive struggles. A player who usually had given himself a chance to post respectable averages and OBPs by making regular contact struck out at a higher-than-usual 21 percent rate in his return from a year lost due to Tommy John surgery; when he did make contact, it was usually weak.
Now, with the elimination of the leg kick, he feels as if his timing is improved, allowing him to show offensive improvement. Defense will always be Vazquez’s hallmark, but he recognizes the significance of offensive improvement.
“Last year was a learning year for me coming back from surgery,” said Vazquez. “I want to work at [hitting] to be better every day – be a better hitter, better at recognizing pitches, know the pitchers. Of course I want to be a better hitter and help the team win.”
So far, both he and Leon are doing that. Consider the highlight reel of the catchers in the Sox’ four wins:
■ Opening Day: Leon’s bunt single helps to fuel a two-out, five-run rally in a 5-3 win.
■ Game 2: Leon hits a walkoff homer in the 12th.
■ Game 5: Leon’s two-run single in the eighth-inning breaks a 4-4 tie in a 7-5 win.
■ Game 6: Vazquez drives in two runs and scores two – while also playing a role in another rally – in the Sox’ 8-1 win.
Offensively, the Red Sox catchers have played sizable roles in each of the team’s four wins – particularly meaningful given the depletion of the team’s lineup.
“The defense is always first. If they can give us quality at-bats, that’d be something beautiful,” said Rodriguez. “They can pick up guys who aren’t swinging the bat good. That’s the sign of a good team, when guys like Sandy and Christian and whoever else can come in and help while the other guys get back on track.”
Of course, to catching instructor Dana LeVangie, those contributions have been secondary, at a time when the Red Sox are the only team in baseball not to permit a stolen base and when both Leon and Vazquez have shown a strong rapport with their pitchers.
“They’re both doing a tremendous job,” said bullpen and catching coach Dana LeVangie. “They’re both throwing the [heck] out of the ball. They’re both shrinking leads, allowing us double play chances by backpicking. They’re calling great games, giving our pitchers a chance. They’re preparing themselves really well. … They both root for each other. They communicate well. It’s a good relationship to have. It’s going to be fun to watch. It really is. And the kid down in Triple A [Blake Swihart] is doing a great job, too.”
Through a difficult season-opening stretch, it is the Red Sox’ catching that has been the team’s most valuable asset, good for 0.9 Wins Above Replacement – tied for the major league lead in WAR by any team from any single position. It may be an improbable blip that isn’t repeated at any other point in the year, but the surprisingly sizable contributions certainly count right now.
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.