Christian Vazquez rose through the minor leagues on one very specific asset: his arm.
During his earliest days as a Red Sox farmhand after being selected in the ninth round of the 2008 draft out of the Puerto Rican Baseball Academy, Vazquez wowed scouts with not only his pop times to second, but his snap throws to first and third, too.
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Evaluations of virtually every other skill, however, found him lacking, especially offensively. This didn't really change even after he smacked 18 homers with an .863 OPS at Low-A Greenville in 2011, or when he hit .289 with a .375 on base percentage two years later at Double-A Portland.
He reached the big leagues in 2014 when the Red Sox decided they had had enough of catcher A.J. Pierzynski. Minor league scouting reports made clear he was in Boston for defense and defense alone.
"At the plate, Vazquez's small frame isn't conducive to power," wrote Baseball Prospectus. "His bat speed isn't a strength either, and swing-and-miss has been a big issue."
Bleacher Report described him as "more of an elite backup than first-division starter."
"He's going to be so good defensively," one evaluator told Baseball America, "he won't have to hit a ton."
Vazquez never cracked a Baseball America Top 10 Red Sox prospects list. He was viewed as Blake Swihart's lifetime backup, a nice defender whose glove and arm would keep him in the big leagues, but probably never make him a starter on a good team. Swihart was the future star. Maybe Vazquez could carve out a career like Sandy Leon and earn the occasional start for his defense.
Twelve years after being drafted, and just three weeks shy of his 30th birthday, however, Vazquez is no longer anyone's idea of a backup. And amazingly, it's not because of his arm, but his bat.
On Wednesday night, Vazquez played a pivotal role in a desperately needed 6-5 victory over the Mets. He went 2 for 4 with his second home run, as well as the game-breaking two-run single with two outs in the eighth that provided necessary breathing room before Brandon Workman made things interesting in the ninth.
A year after slamming a career-high 23 homers, Vazquez is hitting .400 with a 1.304 OPS while emerging as the kind of guy you want to see at the plate in a close game.
"I think as a catcher, really he's got to be up there at the top at what they do and the offensive part," said manager Ron Roenicke. "I know (San Francisco's Buster) Posey was always one of those guys and (Philadelphia's J.T.) Realmuto is one of those guys. It used to be (Yadier) Molina. Vazquy has put himself in the category with the best catchers. Defensively, we know he does a good job. Offensively last year he really stepped it up. He showed us what we can do. And it's looking like he's that type of player again."
Vazquez homered in the seventh off of Seth Lugo — a monster shot down the left field line — before grounding a two-run single to right an inning later that turned a 4-3 lead into a 6-3 lead.
"On the homer, I saw that curveball very good," Vazquez said. "I saw it and I know how he likes to spin the ball, Lugo, but with Wilson, I faced him a couple times before and I know he likes to throw that cutter. I think I got a good late swing and I got the base hit with two guys, so it feels good."
That Vazquez put himself in the middle of the rally is becoming less and less of a surprise. He hit .311 with two outs and runners in scoring position last year, .303 after the sixth inning, and .337 with a .920 OPS in late and close situations. His highest batting averages came in the ninth inning (.343) and extra innings (.429).
Not bad for a guy who's only supposed to be in the big leagues because he can throw.
"Great for him," Roenicke said. "He works hard. I know he wants to be out there every day. He's not happy when I give him a day off. So that's really good to see when guys work hard and it shows up in your game."