Most Major League Baseball teams are lucky to receive either good hitting or good defense from the catching position. The Boston Red Sox get both.
Fortunately for Boston, what recently has been an area of strength likely will continue to be just that in 2021.
In most statistical categories, Red Sox catchers in 2020 — Christian Vazquez and Kevin Plawecki for all but one game — ranked among the best in baseball.
Here are some of their offensive rankings, via FanGraphs:
Batting average: .302 (2nd)
On-base percentage: .362 (4th)
Slugging percentage: .457 (5th)
Home runs: 8 (13th)
FanGraphs offensive rating: 2.7 (6th)
FanGraphs WAR: 1.7 (7th)
And here are some of the defensive numbers:
rSB (stolen base runs above average): 2 (6th)
rSZ (strike zone runs saved): 0 (13th)
FRM (pitch framing): 1.6 (11th)
FanGraphs defensive rating: 8.1 (6th)
We know, some of those numbers are pretty nerdy, but you get the idea: Red Sox catchers were good last season. Even with his relatively cool finish to the year, Vazquez still finished 2020 with a .283 average to go along with seven homers and 23 RBIs. In 24 games, Plawecki hit .341 with five doubles and one homer. The two combined for one error, six passed balls and a 39 percent rate throwing out base-stealers.
Boston carries a lot of question marks into spring training and the new season, but not at the catcher position. With Vazquez and Plawecki both still on the roster, the Red Sox in 2021 should be at least above average behind the plate.
There’s reason to be optimistic about Boston’s catching future, as well. Ronaldo Hernandez, whom the Red Sox recently acquired in a trade, already is the organization’s No. 14 prospect, according to SoxProspects.com. Just over a year ago, he was considered the Tampa Bay Rays’s catcher of the future. Hernandez, 23, hasn’t played above Single-A, but likely would have had COVID-19 not wiped out the 2020 minor league season. All indications are he as the tools to be an impact catcher at the big league level.
Additionally, Connor Wong, acquired in the Mookie Betts trade, boasts impressive positional versatility. Boston’s No. 22 prospect isn’t as highly touted as Hernandez, but he remains an intriguing player.
But let’s focus on the present.
With spring training finally here, let’s dive into the Red Sox’s 2021 catching outlook:
This isn’t even unrealistic. Vazquez, 30, continues to prove he’s an above-average big league hitter. He hit .267 over the last three seasons but, if you take out 2018 (.207) his average would be .282. How about a .300 season from the in-his-prime backstop? Also, considering Vazquez’s 162-game homer average of 27 over the last two campaigns, who’s to say he can’t hit 30 this year?
Plawecki is a career .229 hitter, so expectations probably should be tempered. Still, all the Red Sox need from Plawecki is for him to be a solid major league backstop. Best-case scenario? The 29-year-old is the latest example of a player who found the perfect situation, and role, in which to thrive, and he enjoys a career season.
Finally, either Hernandez or Wong — or both — showing promise in the minors would would be great news for Boston.
The Red Sox could withstand an injury to their backup catcher. However, should Vazquez go down for an extended period of time, their backstop depth would be tested. Should things go sideways, the offense and unproven pitching staff both could suffer.
Obviously, those aren’t the only things that could wrong. What if Plawecki struggles mightily and Vazquez regresses to 2018-like numbers? Vazquez generally has proven himself to be a strong defender, but occasional mental lapses are worrisome. A bad season isn’t out of the question.
Vazquez was a subject of trade rumors last August and again in late January after the Los Angeles Angeles reportedly inquired about the Red Sox backstop. The Red Sox haven’t admitted to shopping Vazquez, but there’s enough smoke to make you wonder whether a deal could happen. Vazquez has insisted he wants to spend his entire career in Boston.
The situation will be worth monitoring this year. Vazquez is due $6.25 million this season with the Red Sox holding a $7 million club option for the 2020 campaign.
Obviously, a deal involving either Vazquez or Plawecki would fundamentally change the outlook for Boston’s backstop situation.