Christian Vazquez is Partially Elite

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:

StatCorner

  1. Christian Vazquez
  2. Rene Rivera
  3. Martin Maldonado
  4. Hank Conger
  5. Jose Molina

Baseball Prospectus

  1. Jose Molina
  2. Christian Vazquez
  3. Martin Maldonado
  4. Hank Conger
  5. 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.

Not long ago, David Laurila asked Tyler Flowers about Vazquez. It was just a part of a longer interview, but here’s an excerpt:

“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:

vazquezzone

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.

VazquezLeft

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.

VazquezRight

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.

VazquezDown

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.

VazquezUp

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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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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DD
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DD
1 year 9 months ago

Love how the data here is backed up by the eye test. Good job Jeff.

Eric F
Guest
Eric F
1 year 9 months ago

Those .gifs are unbelievable. I watch every single Sox game, and had thought Vazquez looked pretty good behind the plate, but this is just silly how easy he’s making it look at age 23.

Kyle Lohse
Guest
Kyle Lohse
1 year 9 months ago

Now I know where I’m signing my next free-agent contract!

Matt Sullivan
Guest
1 year 9 months ago

BP also developed a system for estimating pitch framing without Pitch FX and they applied that to the minors where Vazquez was regularly among the best, so even with the small sample, this is probably not just a fluke. Obviously as teh GIFs show, he passes the eye test, but if you include the minor league data, the numbers are probably there too.

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=21855

thecodygriffin
Member
thecodygriffin
1 year 9 months ago

His catching mitt moves so quickly right after the catch. It is incredible that he can generate so much speed in such a short space without the rest of his body giving it away.

BMB
Guest
BMB
1 year 9 months ago

Agreed. His hands are like lightning in the GIFs.

tz
Guest
tz
1 year 9 months ago

I love the second GIF. I just can’t imagine how hard it must be to catch a moving major-league pitch on the very heel of your mitt, so that half the mitt is over the strike zone even though the ball is several inches outside.

james
Guest
james
1 year 9 months ago

This is the part of the game automating the strike zone would destroy. The question is if it is part of the game that should be destroyed.

Yes- it is not his job to perfectly frame the ball for the UMP. The ump should know as it passes through the zone if it was a strike. The point that the ball is received is outside of the 3 dementional zone where the ball is determined to be a ball or strike. umps looking at pitch framing are arguably being lazy (i am never been an ump, and assume you almost have to do this to be accurate).

I think more and more teams are starting to realize the value of defensive minded catchers having more value, and are aware that pitch framing is part of the equasion. Part of the issue is that a widely accpeted stat like WAR does not reflect WAR with the catcher. Any gains would actually show up with the pitcher.

When talking about market ineffiecies, I think we can actually look at football for a good comparison. When FA went crazy, big time QB and RB really cashed in the biggest. They put up the easy to record and see numbers. So blocking fullbacks often were paid virtually nothing. The value of a block that opened up 20 yards of open field was harder to see than the guy who ran with the ball those 20 yards.

I simply assume, as a matter of practice, that if i am figuring something baseball related out, that someone in most front offices figured it out years ago. I am sure that most teams use a VORP or WAR derivative that reflect framing for catchers (and likely control for it with pitchers), reflect pictches per at bat (i hate that fangraphs lists brad wilkerson as a prime example of a replacement level player when they first started using war… he was replacement almost everywhere but he was consistenly top 10 in the league in pitches per at bat)

dls
Guest
dls
1 year 9 months ago

Although I am a die-hard proponent of robo-umps for balls and strikes… Vasquez is just as smooth as silk back there, and its a real joy to watch a player receive the ball that well.

Dan
Guest
Dan
1 year 9 months ago

As a sox fan, I knew about Vazquez’s defensive ability and he has looked phenomenal behind the plate thus far, but I couldn’t really tell if it was because he was really that good defensively or if Pierzynski was really that bad. Clearly, the answer to both of those things is yes.

GTB
Guest
GTB
1 year 9 months ago

Great GIF’s but all they really show are examples (cherry picked?) of one catcher very quickly snapping his glove back to the center after catching the ball. For context, how does this compare to other catchers (perhaps A.J. Pierzynski)?

My guess is this is how he learned to catch and so ingrained in the technique that it cannot get any better. I would also surmise that at age 23 his reflexes are about as good as they get which probably inevitably means a gradual slowdown of the speed of the snap back. GIF’s comparing the same catcher at different ages would be helpful.

On the other hand, Vazquez’s catching strike zone is damn good. He better hope that umpires don’t read this article and stop relying on Vazquez’s finishing glove position for calling strikes.

BosoxBob
Guest
BosoxBob
1 year 9 months ago

For comparison, you could check out yesterday’s article Investigating The Worst Strike Zone of 2014. White Sox catcher Adrian Nieto does a terrible job framing pitches, making it more likely for the ump to call pitches in the strike zone balls.

And proper framing is not simply a case of snapping the glove back to the center. Nieto does that as well, but only after stabbing at the ball and first causing part of his glove to exit the strike zone. That resulted from setting up too high and not anticipating the drop of the sinker.

Nieto also showed poor form on the one pitch called a strike (the first to Brian Dozier). In the second pitch above, Vazquez keeps the heel of his glove toward the outside of the plate, then slides the glove back toward the center after receiving the pitch. Nieto on the other hand turns his wrist to the outside to receive the pitch. That increases the chance that a pitch will be called a ball (though Nieto got lucky in this case).

Bustyer Bubble
Guest
Bustyer Bubble
1 year 9 months ago

I had occasion to ask a current MLB umpire about pitch framing, and how much umps rely on it to make calls. He informed me that by the time the catcher is “framing” the pitch, the call has already been made. Umpires make their calls on where the ball crossed the front of the plate, not where the catcher catches or “frames” it.

Arc
Guest
1 year 9 months ago

That’s what I’d say (and possibly believe) too if I were an umpire. It’s pretty easily contradicted by simply watching the game, though.

RF
Guest
RF
1 year 9 months ago

Umpires might like to think that, but it’s almost certainly false. The ball moves too fast to accurately do that, and there’s a lot of evidence that framing is a consistent skill.

As a counter-anecdote, I’ve asked a couple college umpires about it, and they’ve all unequivocally said that good catching, framing, and “hitting the target” effect them even if they wish it didn’t.

Josh
Guest
Josh
1 year 9 months ago

I had no idea this dude existed before this article… but wow. Just wow.

MDL
Member
MDL
1 year 9 months ago

Hey Jeff, how did you create that balls & strikes chart? I’d love to compare this to some other receivers. Thanks!

Jeremy B.
Member
1 year 9 months ago

“You never want to draw sweeping conclusions on anything based on such limited data, but we have more information with Vazquez.”

Regarding just the data itself, are there any empirical studies that suggest an appropriate sample size where receiving data “stabilizes” and becomes indicative of a catcher’s true talent level? I understand that the eye test supports Vazquez in this case, but I’m curious whether receiving in general is something that stabilizes quickly (like contact rate) or is more noisy (like UZR).

Arc
Guest
1 year 9 months ago

My uneducated guess is that it stabilizes quickly relative to other stats simply because of the volume of opportunities per game.

Paul
Guest
Paul
1 year 9 months ago

But the total amount of pitches is not the denominator, as most are either balls or strikes with any catcher. The denominator would be the borderline pitches, which is much smaller.

And I have no idea how park, pitcher, or umpire factors might play into the equation.

aces
Guest
aces
1 year 9 months ago

Year-to-year correlations are very strong even in small samples. IIRC, there’s a strong correlation (>.7) for samples as small as 40ish games.

Shut up, bat sixth and get your arse in left
Guest
Shut up, bat sixth and get your arse in left
1 year 9 months ago

Soft hands for sure. Young spy arm too. Hopefully as a Sox fan a combination of Vasquez/Swihart gives the Sox some value moving forward. It should be interesting what the Red Sox do with the catching position next year. The hardest pitch to frame is by far the low pitch. To keep you body still and frame with your wrist/arm is impressive. The one you referenced as “exaggerated” actually involves skill. That’s a blind spot for the home plate ump when you have a righty pitcher and a righty batter. For Vasquez to keep his body and head up is impressive. Let’s hope a larger sample size and his performance confirm what our eyes see.

Eric M. Van
Guest
1 year 9 months ago

Since pitch-framing is not a binary-outcome stat, the standard stabilization methodology doesn’t work. But there is no dropoff in the year-to-year correlation in BP’s data until you get down to a minimum of 2600 framing chances, which is the equivalent of about 300 innings. BP tracks both a theoretical (count-neutral) and actual (count-dependent) runs saved, and interestingly, the difference (clutch framing by count) also correlates significantly; you can use .715 * Theoretical + .285 * Actual to take the apparent luck out of a given framing line (that’s based on the regression formula predicting one year’s actual runs from the previous year’s line. Because actual runs saved adds some noise, the point where Y2Y correlation starts to fade is 340 innings or less).

So far Vazquez is framing at a rate of 38.7 runs saved per chances normalized to 1050 innings, which is 4.3 WAR, which would place him second “all-time” (since 2008) to Jose Molina.

Quick ascension
Guest
Quick ascension
1 year 9 months ago

Glad to see he has been able to top the all time list in a handful of games :eyeroll:

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