A trustworthy receiver behind the plate, catcher Sandy Leon ‘the heartbeat’ of Red Sox pitching staff
Numbers can absolutely tell stories. For instance, the numbers have been tapping you on the shoulder for weeks, pointing at the impact Sandy Leon has had on the Red Sox starting pitchers. His 3.01 catcher ERA leads all of baseball. Dig deeper, and his 3.01 catcher ERA since 2016 is the best in the bigs as well.
But sometimes the best stories — the details — come from the people who didn’t have to do the math to know it first-hand.
The execute-over-everything approach of Sox ace Chris Sale fits hand-in-glove with Leon’s meticulousness.
“People look at numbers and stats and all these things, but you don’t really look at how he really commands the staff and calls a game,” Sale said. “I mean, I put every bit of faith and trust in him.
“Since I’ve been in this uniform, I’ve never looked at a scouting report, I’ve never watched a video on a hitter — first pitch, none of that — and that probably has to do with confidence in myself but also confidence with who I’m throwing to and what their game plan is.
“You’re probably not going to find anything bad about him or anything like that because he works his butt off.”
Remember a week ago, when Sale needed only 68 pitches to run up 12 strikeouts? The efficiency still baffled manager Alex Cora days later. Sale remembered too, of course. But what stood out to him were key pitches that may have been because he threw so few.
Take the 2-and-1 count to Baltimore’s Austin Wynns in the third inning. Sale fell behind in the count because he missed with two fastballs. Conventional wisdom might have said throw another in a safe spot to even the count.
“You’re in a 2-and-1 count, most people are just like, ‘OK, we’ve got to get another strike, throw another fastball,’ ” Sale said. “He knew, ‘Well OK, we’re in a 2-and-1 count because of his fastball right now, why don’t you go to something else?’ Knowing the pitcher is something that might get overlooked as well.
“Some people look at it like, ‘Oh 2-and-1, gotta throw it here and get a strike.’ It’s like, ‘Well, we’re here because of that, let’s try this.’
“There’s so many times like, I’m sitting here and I’m thinking of something and it’s right there. Like, I’ll be gripping a slider and he calls it.”
From the time Leon made his splashy Sox introduction in 2015 with three hits and an RBI in a win against the Nationals, he has committed to fully developing as a catcher.
“It’s been a long process too,” Leon said. “I’ve been learning a lot since I got here in 2015. [Pitching coach] Dana LeVangie helped me a lot to just learning the hitters and communicating with the pitchers before the game. He just taught me to prepare before the game.
“No matter who we’re facing, you’ve got to be prepared, you’ve got to know who you’re facing and you’ve got to know who’s pitching. So that’s my point. Just be ready, be prepared before the game and just try to put down the right fingers.”
That trust in Leon resonates throughout the pitching staff. The Easter egg in the Sox’ major league-leading record is the fact they’ve lost only once in the last 18 times Leon has been behind the plate and have won 28 of the 30 times he’s caught since June 21.
“You can call a good game, but if they don’t execute the pitches, it’s over,” said Leon. “That’s why I say you’ve got to give all the credit to those guys.”
Those numbers are by no means a slight to Christian Vazquez, who’s been on the disabled list since July 8 with a fractured right pinkie, or Blake Swihart, who emerged in his absence before a right hamstring strain landed him on the DL on Aug. 3.
But Rick Porcello, who leads the staff in wins, couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise for Leon.
“No disrespect to any other catcher I’ve thrown to, but he’s the best catcher I’ve ever thrown to,” Porcello said. “His game-calling, he’s prepared for every start, for every pitcher, starting or bullpen. He’s kind of the heartbeat of our pitching staff. We rely on him a lot. He’s always on point, he always knows what pitches to throw. Gives guys different looks. He’s as good as it gets as a game-caller and a catcher.”
In part, Leon’s effectiveness is rooted in his studious nature born out of time spent poring over information scavenged from LeVangie and the Sox analytics department . At the same time, it manifests itself in his ability to relay it to Sox pitchers in critical situations. He doesn’t just read hitters’ hot and cold zones, he knows what Sox pitchers have to throw to make sure the cold zones stay cold.
“We had some other stuff that comes from upstairs, pitch recommendations and certain things that personally I liked from last year that we’re doing this year here,” Cora said. “But in the end, it’s a mix. It’s not just easy to just pitch to the blue, pitch to the blue, which is the weak point. Sometimes hitters will make adjustments and we have to make adjustments.
“With Sandy, it seems like there’s not a big moment out there. He’s able to slow it down. He’s not afraid to make those calls. He has a good feel. He’s been doing an outstanding job.”
His temperament doesn’t hurt either. He carries a workmanlike attitude in the Sox clubhouse that makes him both respected and easy to work with.
“He’s a really laid-back guy, easy guy to get along with, easy guy to play with,” Sale said. “That’s the thing. This game is a very result-oriented game from the outside looking in, but from the inside looking out — for me personally — I really only look for two things: How hard do you work and how do you treat other people.
“And that’s for me really the only thing that’s important in this game and inside this clubhouse and he works really hard and he treats everybody with a lot of respect.”
At the same time, Leon is also as cerebral as anyone in the clubhouse.
“He’s watching hitters’ tendencies,” Sale said. “He knows their last 10 at-bats. He knows what percentage of first-pitch strikes guys swing at. Those are just things that people don’t really understand or think about.”
When Matt Barnes recently sat down to talk to Leon about pitch-calling, the conversation cemented a feeling he already knew.
“If we give up a hit, he takes it as he gave up a hit,” Barnes said. “So he’s almost on that same level as you in terms of calling a game and making sure that he’s prepared, making sure that you guys are putting down the right fingers and that you’re working on the same page together.
“When you have a catcher who takes giving up runs almost as much as the pitcher to heart, that’s the kind of guy you want behind the plate.”
It’s noticeable in the most subtle moments. Barnes points to all the times he doesn’t have to shake off Leon — not solely because they’re on the same page or just because of the rhythm it establishes, but because of how it makes sure the scales aren’t tipped in a hitter’s favor.
“Having the ability with your catcher to be on your same page, to keep the flow of the game going,” Barnes said. “There’s nothing worse than being out there and shaking and shaking and shaking, and you guys can’t get on the same page. That doesn’t happen very often at all with Sandy, which allows the game to keep moving, which allows the guys to stay engaged and the pitcher to get into a rhythm. And while that might not seem like a big deal, because that doesn’t show up in the stat line, that’s a huge part.
“Not to mention if a hitter sees you start shaking, now he starts thinking a little bit more. If you’ve never shaken, a hitter has no idea what you’re throwing even more so. So if I’ve thrown three fastballs in a row and I shake, maybe instead of sitting fastball, he’s like, ‘OK, he shook, maybe he wants to go to the curveball depending on how his swings were in that at-bat.’ But if I never shake, he has no idea what I’m doing.”
So while the numbers certainly articulate a key factor in the Sox success, the subtleties behind the plate do just the same.
“He’s the guy back there,” Barnes said. “He’s everything.”