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Vazquez emerging as offensive threat

MLB.com

NEW YORK -- With two years marred by Tommy John surgery and its aftermath now in the rearview mirror, Christian Vazquez has re-established himself as a viable starting catcher with the Red Sox. And beyond his reliable defense, he's putting together a breakout offensive year.

After making his Major League debut and showing off his powerful arm in 55 games with the Red Sox in 2014, Vazquez seemed poised to begin the 2015 season as the team's starting backstop. Instead, he underwent elbow surgery in April and missed the entire year. In a disappointing return in 2016, he hit just .227 in 57 games with Boston and spent most of July and August with Triple-A Pawtucket. Meanwhile, Sandy Leon seized the Red Sox's full-time catcher role with an offensive surge.

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NEW YORK -- With two years marred by Tommy John surgery and its aftermath now in the rearview mirror, Christian Vazquez has re-established himself as a viable starting catcher with the Red Sox. And beyond his reliable defense, he's putting together a breakout offensive year.

After making his Major League debut and showing off his powerful arm in 55 games with the Red Sox in 2014, Vazquez seemed poised to begin the 2015 season as the team's starting backstop. Instead, he underwent elbow surgery in April and missed the entire year. In a disappointing return in 2016, he hit just .227 in 57 games with Boston and spent most of July and August with Triple-A Pawtucket. Meanwhile, Sandy Leon seized the Red Sox's full-time catcher role with an offensive surge.

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A little more than two months into the 2017 season, Vazquez seems to have turned a corner. The Puerto Rico native entered Wednesday tops in the American League and third overall with a .330 batting average among catchers with at least 100 plate appearances. His reward has been more playing time; he's been behind the plate for 31 of Boston's first 57 games this year, including 27 as a starter.

Vazquez, 26, had an eight-game hitting streak snapped Tuesday night in the Red Sox's 5-4 victory over the Yankees. He hit .406 with four doubles and six RBIs during that stretch, which is tied for the longest of his career.

"In life you learn from adversity," said Vazquez in Spanish. "Last year was about experience for me, to learn how to play with the injury. I had a lot on my mind. It's hard to come back from surgery after missing a year, and get the job done. But I did what I could, and here we are."

Selected by the Red Sox out of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy in the 2008 Draft, Vazquez has always drawn rave reviews for his prowess when it comes to framing pitches, blocking the ball and making throws to second base. His 40.8 percent caught-stealing percentage ranks second behind fellow countryman Yadier Molina among active Major League catchers who've played at least 100 games.

Video: BOS@STL: Vazquez nabs Pham to end the 12th

Vazquez's offensive numbers this year, however, have been a surprise considering he began the season with a career .233 average at the big league level.

Red Sox hitting coach Chili Davis attributes Vazquez's recent offensive surge to the player's better understanding of his strengths and weaknesses and also points to his approach after two strikes. Vazquez entered Wednesday leading the AL with a .328 average in those situations. 

"Last year he came back, and he was trying to create a little more power, and I think he realized that that's not the style of hitter he's going to be more successful being," Davis said. "So, he changed his approach a little bit to have a more line-drive-type approach, and he's stuck with it. Spring Training on, he's stuck with it.

"His routine has been the same every day. His focus is really good. He's got a really good focus before two strikes, and a great two-strike focus. Because of that, he's hitting the ball all over field. So what if he doesn't hit a whole bunch of home runs?"

Though the power numbers aren't there -- Vazquez has hit only two home runs in the Majors and none this year -- Davis believes the catcher has the potential to be as much of a threat at the plate as he is behind it.

"If he sticks to what he's been doing, I think he'll finish up the season realizing he can hit .300 or better in the big leagues," Davis said. "Even if he's a little bit below .300, that's an exceptional year for a catcher of his caliber, who handles pitchers the way he does, throws the ways he does and commands the game the way he does." 

Boston skipper John Farrell notes Vazquez's improvement at the plate has been a boon to the team's lineup.

"He's doing a very good job," Farrell said. "Any time you see a guy come back from Tommy John, the work that they put in is always a journey in its own right.

"Last year was a challenging year for him to get back to playing full-time, to iron some things out from an offensive standpoint. He's done that. I think toward the end of last year things started really coming together for him. He had a very productive Spring Training, and to see what he's doing with the bat right now has been a boost to the bottom third of our lineup. He and Sandy have paired up to be a productive tandem."

But while Vazquez is enjoying his newfound offensive stroke, working with his pitching staff remains his priority.

"That's what got me to the big leagues, defense," Vazquez said. "It makes me happy when pitchers get the job done, and having them win games is what's most important. I'd rather catch a good game and win than have four hits and lose."

Nathalie Alonso is a contributing writer to LasMayores.com, the Spanish-language website for MLB.com

Boston Red Sox, Christian Vazquez