The Red Sox coaching staff knew they had something in catcher Christian Vazquez.
He came up as a defense-first player, known for his cannon of an arm, but there was something to his bat that hadn’t yet reached its full potential.
It goes as far back as 2016, when Vazquez played for Cangrejeros de Santurce in the Puerto Rican Winter League and Sox manager Alex Cora was the general manager for Criollos de Caguas.
“He would kill us,” Cora said recently. “But over there, it was more about showing the people back home, ‘Yeah, I’m Christian Vazquez the big leaguer.’ ”
Sox assistant coach Ramon Vazquez managed Christian in 2016 for Santurce and came away with Cora’s assessment. He was swinging with conviction, confident that he could drive the ball. But why didn’t it ever stick?
“When he was playing for me in the playoffs in winter ball, he was turning on the ball hard down the left-field line,” Ramon said. “That’s something he didn’t do much back in the day.”
So, the key for the Sox staff became how they could get that version of Christian Vazquez at the plate. Not the one who would settle for a single to right field or the grounder between the 4- and 3-holes, but the one who would look to do damage on pitches in the zone.
In 2018, Vazquez tried to become that hitter, but he hit just .207 with three homers in 269 plate appearances. He admits he tried to force the issue. He didn’t know how to do it. He knew the knock on him was that he didn’t drive the ball, so he went with an open stance, trying to generate more pop and momentum into the ball. He thought he could drive the ball more to left field, as he had shown glimpses of in winter ball. It ended up a wreck.
The load to get to the ball wasn’t fluid. The double toe tap he employed before bringing himself squared in the batter’s box ready to hit only stopped his momentum. Nothing was in synch.
More important, though, while the stance and parts of the load screamed launch, the swing itself shouted batted ball in the dirt. Each moving part worked against itself. Nothing in unison.
“I think last year my swing was downhill,” the 28-year-old Vazquez said. “It was a lot of ground balls there and a lot of rollovers. Just bad habits.”
Vazquez hit the ball on the ground 42.4 percent of the time last year, according to Fangraphs. His hard-contact percentage on batted balls was 27.5 percent. League average in 2018 was 35.3 percent.
A friend of Vazquez’s who was a former outfielder in the Colorado Rockies organization recommended hitting instructor Lorenzo Germania. The two got together in the offseason and that’s when things started to take off for Vazquez.
“I focused on the angle, launch angle and all that stuff,” Vazquez said. “Why not? Everyone is doing it.
“I had nothing to lose. I hit .207 last year. If I hit the same [so be it]. If I hit better, it’s a plus for us.”
It’s certainly been the latter for the Sox catcher. This season, he is hitting .283 with 16 homers and 47 RBIs to go along with an .812 OPS. All are career highs.
“He’s carried us,” Xander Bogaerts said. “There were times he’s put the team on his back and he kind of picked up the load. It’s been fun to see how he changed from last year to this year. He’s hitting the ball with more power and driving the ball to all fields.”
Red Sox assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett said the power has a lot to do with everything, from his body to hands and finally the swing, all working together.
“His approach to the ball and the movements of his body have changed,” Barkett said. “He used to kind of cut the ball, more of a direct path to the ball. He would be able to hit it all the time but his barrel a lot of times wouldn’t stay in the zone long enough.
“Now he’s really getting behind the ball early and able to stay through the ball and hit it with backspin.”
Vazquez’s stance is more upright now, and he’s closed it off, and you see a huge difference in just how hard he’s driving the ball, with his hard-hit percentage reaching 33.2 percent.
His offensive improvement has caught the eyes of the league, most notably Yankees manager Aaron Boone.
“He’s always been a guy that’s been really good at using the whole field,” Boone said. “I think now as he’s gained experience and everyday reps, I think he’s driving the ball with more authority and obviously hitting more home runs.
“He’s changed a bit in his setup and how he gets started, and it’s helped him.”
Last season, Vazquez was chasing power, but with a ground-ball swing. Interestingly enough, though, as he just focuses on the launch point, the power has taken care of itself.
“When your swing is right, you don’t have to try and generate power,” J.D. Martinez said. “I think that’s what he’s learning. He’s more focused on the hit than the result, and it’s paid off for him.”
Vazquez has gone through a skid lately. He’s just 5 for his last 24, but he understands what he needs to do. Certainly the sample size will have to be larger, but Barkett and the rest of the coaching staff are bullish on Vazquez’s newfound approach that had some people calling for him to make the All-Star Game this season.
The coaching staff, finally, might have the same guy they have seen for years in Puerto Rico.
“I realized he was in a better position to hit,” Barkett said. “Through the offseason, we went down and monitored his progress and watched what he was doing. I felt like he looked good, and Alex was comfortable with what was going on and how he was swinging.
“He came into spring training believing in himself. That’s the key: When a player believes in himself, he can do a lot of things. He is right now.”