RED SOX INSIDER

Tomase: The case for a catcher shakeup as Vazquez scuffles

RED SOX INSIDER

In April, Red Sox manager Alex Cora proudly referred to Christian Vazquez as one of the best all-around catchers in baseball. Vazquez had just launched homers in consecutive wins over the Tampa Bay Rays, cheekily declaring, "I feel sexy at the plate."

Four months later, he's running out of time to bring sexy back.

While we have spent most of July bemoaning the offensive failures of players like first baseman Bobby Dalbec, utilityman Marwin Gonzalez, and rookie Jarren Duran, Vazquez has skated. But he's scuffling as much as anyone, hitting an empty .257 with four homers and a .646 OPS.

Since opening the season with two homers in his first six games, Vazquez has left the yard just twice. Of the 135 hitters who qualify for the batting title, only six own a lower OPS. He even trails the much-maligned Dalbec (.655), whom the Red Sox would desperately like to bench.

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It's enough to question if Vazquez should lose at-bats to veteran backup Kevin Plawecki, who's hitting .313 and making consistently solid contact. In Sunday's 9-8 loss to the Jays, Plawecki went 3 for 4 with three RBIs. He has recorded multiple hits in three of his last five starts and is now very quietly batting .326 since joining the Red Sox last season.

This can't be a straight swap or even a 50-50 split -- Plawecki has only thrown out three of 28 rival base stealers and is thus a defensive liability -- but Plawecki deserves an extra start or two a week, at least while the Red Sox search for ways to goose the offense.

 

It should not have come to this. After blasting a career-high 23 homers in 2019, Vazquez overcame a lackluster middle to the truncated 2020 season to post a career-high .801 OPS. But he has a tendency to get homer-happy, resulting in a big swing and lazy flyouts.

It's a shame, because his signature moment of the season involved taking what the pitcher gave him, in this case a 100 mph fastball from Mets ace Jacob deGrom that he shot the other way for an RBI double and the only run in a 1-0 win.

Cora is extremely loyal to Vazquez and loves his defense, his familiarity with the pitching staff, and his experience. But even Vazquez isn't the defender he used to be. He leads the American League with nine passed balls and has only thrown out 21 percent of opposing base stealers (12 for 57). That's down from his high of 52 percent as a rookie and his previous career-low of 30 percent last year.

Earlier this month, Cora addressed Vazquez's slump.

Power outage

Vazquez' HR total in 2019 (138 games)
23
Vazquez' combined HR total in 2020, 2021 (146 games)
11

"One of the things that I always believe from Christian -- he can become a complete hitter," Cora said. "He can hit .280 in this league. He can drive in runs, and he can hit for occasional power. In '19, if you look at his career, people have career years. And I think as far as the power numbers, it was a career year. I had my career year. I hit 10 one year. I was like, wow, you're a power hitter! No, it doesn't work that way. When you start chasing power, sometimes there's a lot of empty fly balls. When Christian is going well, he's hitting line drives all over the place and sometimes he'll hit the ball out of the ballpark.

"He's not having a bad season. He's actually done an amazing job behind the plate, calling pitches, grinding. And he has put some good at-bats, but sometimes we have to decide who we want to be. And I do believe Christian Vázquez is a good big league hitter that can hit for average, can drive in runs, and can hit for occasional power. I love when he's hitting line drives the other way. I love when he stays up the middle. I don't like the empty fly balls to right field, and he doesn't like it either."

Meanwhile, Plawecki takes the opposite approach. He has homered once in 96 at-bats, content instead to hit line drives.

"The short stroke," Cora said recently of Plawecki. "He will put the ball in play, he can catch up with the fastball and obviously late in games, that's the name of the game. Velocity."

There's little question the best Red Sox lineup features a productive Vazquez, but until he makes like Justin Timberlake, Cora should consider the decidedly less sexy option and give Plawecki an extra look.