NEW YORK — Sandy Leon believes he earned the right to be the starting catcher of the Red Sox based on the good work he did last season after others failed. What else did he have to prove?
Christian Vazquez still remembers being told he had the job two years ago before elbow surgery ended his season before it even started. He thinks he should get that chance again.
The solution has been a diplomatic and ultimately productive one for the Sox: Leon and Vazquez have split the position.
Leon has started 30 times and Vazquez 26 times this season. That gap will narrow a bit with Vazquez scheduled to catch two of the three games against the Yankees in the series that starts Tuesday.
“Of course I want to play every day,” said Vazquez. “I know Sandy does, too. But this has been good for the team.”
As a pair, Leon and Vazquez are hitting .282 with a .737 OPS. The Red Sox are fourth in the American League in OPS out of the catching position and second in batting average.
Leon and Vazquez also have thrown out 38 percent of base stealers, the third-best mark in the league.
The pitchers they handle are fourth in the league in earned run average and first in strikeout-to-walk ratio. Sox pitchers lead the league with only 2.5 walks per nine innings.
“Their tandem has been outstanding,” said manager John Farrell.
Farrell has taken the guesswork out of his lineup choice in recent weeks by pairing the catchers with certain pitchers. Leon gets Rick Porcello and Chris Sale. Vazquez works with Drew Pomeranz, David Price, and Eduardo Rodriguez.
If there’s a change in the rotation, as will be the case later this week with Rodriguez on the disabled list, Vazquez gets that pitcher.
“It’s allowed both to stay fresh where you’re not running them out there four or five consecutive days,” Farrell said. “That might take its toll on the offensive side. They’ve been able to contribute. They’re never getting too far away from at-bats, but yet they’re not getting overloaded where they feel it on the physical side.
“There’s no drop-off defensively. They both run a good game.”
Throughout spring training, Farrell said that Leon would be the starter based on his taking over the job in the second half of the 2016 season. Leon hit .310 with an .845 OPS, by far the best of his career.
But that season was more of an outlier. Leon was hitting .197 after 16 starts this year, and Farrell started to give Vazquez more time.
Vazquez responded well. He has hit .344 with an .831 OPS, 10 extra-base hits, and 11 RBIs. Among major league catchers with at least 100 plate appearances, Vazquez has the second-highest batting average and fourth-best OPS.
“Of course I feel good. I’m hitting .344,” Vazquez said, laughing. “I don’t try and do too much. I don’t have the power to hit 20 home runs, but I can help the team.”
Farrell believes Vazquez has succeeded at the plate by understanding better what he is capable of.
“I think he knows who he is as a hitter: an off-field hitter, a good hit-and-run guy, he’s going to hit behind runners,” the manager said. “I think Christian has really come into his own by understanding who he is as a player and what makes him perform well. That’s always good to see young players get into that phase.”
Leon has more power than Vazquez and adds the benefit of being able to switch hit. He has three home runs batting lefthanded.
“I just try and make something happen,” Leon said. “It helps me to split the time with Christian. I get more rest and I can stay in better shape with the days off. Having two catchers helps a lot.”
Leon’s biggest contribution has been the relationship he quickly forged with Sale, who is 7-2 with a 2.89 ERA.
“Sandy is the brains of the operation,” said Sale, who leaves much of the game-planning duties to Leon and rarely shakes off his pitch selections. “I have total trust in him.”
President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said finding a reliable catcher is difficult. That the Sox have two is unusual.
“We’re very happy,” he said. “They do the job defensively and have contributed from an offensive perspective. They’re good at receiving, framing pitches, handling the game plan. It’s a big positive.”
Dombrowski said he leans to defense when selecting a catcher.
“You can always come up with an offensive catcher if that is what you want,” he said. “I’ve always emphasized the defensive side. In general, it’s a hard position to fill.”
Leon and Vazquez have an easy partnership. Leon, at 28, is two years older but has played only 43 more games in the majors. Both are native Spanish speakers who are fiercely loyal to their families and fond of tattoos.
Leon has a full, bushy beard. Vazquez is trying but his red-hued scruff is still filling in.
“Christian is a good person,” said Leon. “I played against him for years in the minors and now we’re together. It’s working out well for both of us.”
Said Vazquez: “Last year was rough for me coming back from the surgery. Sandy did a great job and now we’re both playing. You look at the results and you have to say it’s a good thing.”