When the Boston Red Sox cut ties with A.J. Pierzynski, there were two benefits. One was the team no longer had to put up with Pierzynski. The other was that Boston got to take a look at Christian Vazquez. The prospect is 15 games into his major-league career, and while he’s not the only young and talented catcher in the system, for the time being he’s on top of the mountain. Vazquez is getting to show off his skills, and one of them — you already know which one, I bet — has been spectacular.
I know how early it still is. I don’t care. Vazquez has long had the reputation of being an outstanding defensive catcher with a little bit of offensive upside. He’s always been praised for his skills in the field, so that’s our background: We already had reason to believe in Vazquez’s defense. He’s had only a few blocking opportunities. He’s had only a few throwing opportunities. He’s had more than 1,000 framing opportunities. Though it’s been only a few weeks, all the evidence suggests Vazquez is one of the best receivers in baseball.
There are a couple places you can get framing stats. Matthew Carruth provides a sortable table of them over at StatCorner. Baseball Prospectus also has its own leaderboard. The methods are similar, of course, with BP’s being a little more involved, but there’s a lot of agreement between the results. So let’s look only at the catchers who have caught at least 1,000 called pitches this season. Let’s take their extra strikes divided by a common denominator. Here are the resulting top-five receivers of 2014, according to both sites:
- Jose Molina
- Christian Vazquez
- Martin Maldonado
- Hank Conger
- Rene Rivera
You see the same five names, in slightly different orders. You see the names of guys you recognize as good receivers, and you see Christian Vazquez, first by one method, second by the other. You never want to draw sweeping conclusions on anything based on such limited data, but we have more information with Vazquez. We have his reputation, we have his history and we have the eye test.
Because of the way Vazquez has been talked about, we already would’ve expected him to be a plus receiver. There have always been defensive-specialist catchers in the minor leagues, but only more recently have we begun to understand their value. Not that Vazquez is a pure specialist, but, anyway. Another data point we have: Vazquez profiled statistically as one of the best framers last year in the high minors. Those calculations are performed absent PITCHf/x data, but the method seems to hold up.
“It looked like he had a good, low set up. I did notice there were a number of low pitches, and he seemed to do a really good job of not letting them take him out of the zone – he didn’t let the momentum carry his glove down. He did a good job counter-acting that force to catch it where it was, or even kind of massage it back up in the zone a little bit. What I saw from [the dugout] as far as up and down, I thought he looked pretty good, pretty sharp. He was kind of effortless, too, which is always a plus.”
So that’s a catcher, analyzing a catcher. Flowers had pretty good things to say about an opponent he’d never really seen before. So let’s talk a little about Vazquez’s technique. Where might he have learned to become such a fantastic receiver of pitches? Oh, you know:
No dropped balls. Nice framing technique, which he learned from the Molina brothers working with them in Puerto Rico.
Good footwork. Balance. Real nice, the scouts said.
I remember a story from a few years ago about Yuniesky Betancourt going to train with Raul Ibanez in the offseason. Ibanez has never been an obvious athlete, but it’s remarkable that he’s done what he’s done with the skills he’s possessed, and he became Raul Ibanez only because he was willing to outwork anyone he came across. It seemed, then, like Ibanez could be a good influence on Betancourt, who didn’t share the same reputation. Betancourt showed up, and then he didn’t do anything and then it all fizzled out and now it’s 2014 and Raul Ibanez is still in the major leagues and Yuniesky Betancourt is not.
So sometimes offseason training attempts don’t help. But sometimes — when you’re a catcher and you train with some of the best catchers in the world — then you can learn a lot. It sure seems like Vazquez has benefited from seeking advice from members of a legendary catching family. For a while, Jose Molina was kind of the face of pitch-framing analysis. So why not try to improve your pitch-framing by working with Jose Molina?
Here is an approximate map of Christian Vazquez’s strike zone to date:
The black strike-zone box is only an estimate, a point of reference, but you can clearly see all those extra strikes Vazquez has secured off the edges. You can see he hasn’t lost very many strikes at all within the zone. By Carruth’s numbers, Vazquez ranks fifth in terms of preserving strikes, and he ranks first in terms of getting extra strikes. The gaps are all small and splitting up the data only further reduces the sample sizes, but there’s a strong case being built.
Maybe you’re tired of numbers and charts. Maybe you want to see Vazquez for yourself. I’ve prepared .gifs of him getting strikes in four directions: left, right, down, and up. If you didn’t already buy Vazquez as a skilled receiver, you’re about to.
The pitcher did a good job of hitting the target, and that’s a reminder this is always a two-person effort, but look at how little Vazquez does back there. He flashes a target, he removes the target and then he catches the ball cleanly while moving his glove back toward the zone. Also, as the pitcher begins to throw, Vazquez very subtly moves his upper body closer to the zone, in some way perhaps aiding the deception. The pitch is caught around the edge of the left-handed batter’s box, and even to us it looks better than that. And we’re in the middle of an article about pitch-framing.
This is basically perfect. I honestly, genuinely laughed a little to myself as I was preparing this .gif. That’s as much a reflection of me as it is a reflection of the player, but this is silliness. You might say the pitcher hit his target. He was in the vicinity, but he missed a little up and a little away. Vazquez makes it look like he was dead on.
This is almost too exaggerated. Maybe this isn’t actually good technique at all. But Vazquez did get the strike, and like Flowers said above, Vazquez didn’t let the momentum of the baseball carry his glove down toward the ground. He didn’t just stop the ball where it was — he pulled it back up, with relative ease. Everything else was silent. You can see that slight upper-body lean again, perhaps in preparation for the ball tailing in on the right-handed hitter. That’s something Jose Molina has talked about in the past.
The pitcher definitely didn’t hit a spot here. This was a miss, up and away, but Vazquez got it anyway, securing a first-pitch strike that easily could’ve been called a first-pitch ball. Again, it’s basically all arm movement, and the movement is all in the direction of the strike zone. The ball’s momentum is stopped in an instant and then Vazquez snaps everything back to a location on the border. He looks so clean and crisp. Vazquez is exactly what you want your catcher to look like.
The numbers are on Vazquez’s side. The reputation is on Vazquez’s side. The visuals are on Vazquez’s side. It’s all pointing to the same place: Christian Vazquez, as a receiver, is an absolute gem. And if he isn’t the best in the majors, he’s got to be among them. Perhaps he’s not Jose Molina. He’s probably not Jose Molina, yet. But Vazquez is this good at 23, with this little experience. His presence means Red Sox pitchers get to throw to both him and David Ross, and that’s going to make a lot of pitchers happy. That’s going to make a lot of young pitchers more comfortable.
One question is whether Vazquez will hit enough to play enough to matter. That much, we don’t know yet, although it’s not like Jose Molina has ever been a force. And Vazquez could make a meaningful difference even in a more part-time role, if the magnitudes of the framing numbers are to be believed. Vazquez should have a long career ahead of him.
Another question concerns how much longer any of this is going to be deeply significant. Never mind the far-off possibility of an automated strike zone. What happens if everyone finds or develops good receivers? What happens when the league, as a whole, gets on board and there aren’t lousy receivers remaining? Then what’s the value of having a guy like Vazquez in the field, if he’s no longer exceptional? It’s an interesting question to think about, but it’s removed from the present-day reality. There are still only so many really good framers in the bigs who get to play reasonably often.
Baseball has relatively good receivers, relatively average receivers and relatively poor receivers. Vazquez, already, looks like he’s a relatively good receiver, if not a relatively great receiver. That’s not all the Red Sox want him to be, but that gives him a strong foundation and a lower offensive bar to clear if he wants to make his money and last a long time. Christian Vazquez isn’t the only talented young backstop in the Boston system, but for the time being he’s taking advantage of the spotlight.
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