FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There’s a catcher competition going on in Red Sox camp. Veterans Kevin Plawecki and Jonathan Lucroy are staging a backup battle in which Plawecki’s strong Grapefruit League performance makes him the early favorite, but Lucroy’s past ties to interim manager Ron Roenicke from their shared Milwaukee days are not to be ignored.
But the above only underscores an obvious point that would not have been at all obvious a year ago: The Red Sox have a sure-fire starting catcher in Christian Vázquez.
A year ago, Vázquez was embroiled in a competition that also featured Sandy León and Blake Swihart. Because Vázquez’s defensive adeptness was offset by his brittle bat most of 2018, he figured to have to fight for every at-bat. And the offseason overhaul he made to his swing wasn’t bearing fruit in the Grapefruit League games, as he had just five hits in 38 at-bats.
“Really, I was doubting [the swing changes],” Vázquez said. “I didn’t know if this was going to work. I was trying something different in my swing and had never tried it before. And in Spring Training, I didn’t hit good. But when the season started, it was a different story.”
Vázquez got a roster spot, and then he had one of the best seasons of any catcher in the sport. To put his season in perspective, here’s where Vázquez ranked in FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement tally for catchers:
1. J.T. Realmuto, Phillies: 5.7
2. Yasmani Grandal, Brewers: 5.2
3. Mitch Garver, Twins: 3.9
4. Christian Vázquez: 3.5
5. Tom Murphy, Mariners: 3.2
6. Roberto Pérez, Indians: 3.0
Vázquez beefed up that total value accumulation by making major gains on the offensive side. His weighted runs created plus (wRC+) mark went from 42 (or 58% below league average) in '18 to 102 (or 2% better than league average) in ’19. And as a testament to his earning of an everyday opportunity, he was one of only four catchers in MLB who accrued 500 plate appearances (Realmuto, Grandal and the Mets’ Wilson Ramos were the others).
“It’s huge, when you’re talking about a guy that’s out there every day pretty much like he was,” Red Sox interim manager Ron Roenicke said. “It pushes your lineup so deep. He’s hitting seventh or sometimes eighth. When you’re that deep, you’re going to score a lot of runs.”
In the lead-up to 2019, Vázquez worked with Lorenzo Garmendia -- a coach who runs Gradum Baseball, a group of analytics-based hitting facilities in South Florida -- to reshape his swing so that he could better handle outside pitches. Vázquez became one of the many players across MLB paying more attention to their swing path, aiming for more elevation and better barrel rates. And though it took time for the changes to lead to anything tangible, by year’s end his barrel percentage had jumped from 1.9% to 6.2%, his rate of solid contact from 5.2% to 8.8%. It all led to 23 homers and 26 doubles.
“You need to produce to help the team win,” he said. “One day, I clicked. I hit the ball hard [the opposite way] to right-center field. And after that I was feeling good. It became normal.”
If this is Boston’s new normal, then the backup catching competition -- intriguing though it may be in the moment -- is but a blip on the radar. The Red Sox have their guy behind the dish. The 29-year-old Vázquez has accrued 36 defensive runs saved since his 2014 debut, ranking him in the top 10 in baseball in that span. He’s seventh in framing runs over the course of his career, meaning he can steal strikes for his pitching staff. And now he’s a verifiable offensive weapon, putting his name in rare company at a time when catcher production is hard to come by.
“I hate to be on the bench,” he said. “It’s that simple. “I need to be on the field. I want to help every day.”