Red Sox: Despite game tying home run, Christian Vazquez is doing it wrong

HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 02: Christian Vazquez #7 of the Boston Red Sox receives a high five from third base coach Carlos Febles #52 in the seventh inning after hitting a home run against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on June 2, 2018 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 02: Christian Vazquez #7 of the Boston Red Sox receives a high five from third base coach Carlos Febles #52 in the seventh inning after hitting a home run against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on June 2, 2018 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images) /
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Boston Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez went yard for the first time in 2018, and the timing could not have been better. Is it a sign he’s about to heat up?

Coming off the 2017 season, it seemed that Christian Vazquez had settled in as something a little below a league average hitter for the Boston Red Sox. This was great news, as the team was incredibly thin at catcher in the minor leagues. Having a plus defensive catcher who could at least hit singles with some consistency made the lineup much longer. So much so that the Red Sox signed him to a three year extension worth at least $13.55M. He can earn up to $8M more in incentives. Unfortunately, his bat showed no signs of sustaining that improvement through the first third of the 2018 season. Until last night. Maybe.

The Red Sox had lost the first two in a four game series against the Houston Astros. But in the 7th inning of last night’s game while down 3-2, his bat came alive in a big way.

Time to dig into the crunchy stuff. 

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That’s a 383 foot home run that came off the bat at 98 MPH with a 32 degree launch angle. It was certainly an important home run, but just how big an impact did it have? Well, when Vazquez stepped up to the plate the Red Sox had a 22.7% chance of winning the game. When that ball landed in the stands their odds had jumped up to 43.3%. That one swing of the bat was worth .206 win probability added (WPA). It was the second biggest hit of the night behind Andrew Benintendi’s mammoth blast two batters later to put the Red Sox up for good. That homer was worth .342 WPA, or a 34.2% increase in their odds to win.

Of course, we know Benintendi has a game changing bat, and we know he’s been hot lately. So it’s not a shock to see him coming through with a big moment like that. Vazquez has been downright awful at the plate all season and has virtually no power production to speak of. That was his first home run of the season to go with just 5 doubles. It brings his SLG up to .248. There are nine players on the Red Sox with a batting average higher than that. Including the struggling Eduardo Nunez. Rafael Devers and Jackie Bradley Jr. both fall below that mark, and both can be expected to finish the season with a BA higher than that.

Is it a sign?

Hopefully this is a sign that Christian Vazquez is about to warm up. We know he’s a better hitter than the 27 wRC+ he currently has (even after the home run). But just where does his true talent fall between that mark and the 93 he finished the 2017 season with? Well, that’s a question we’ll just have to wait to see the answer to. Since the morning of May 27 he has an 84 wRC+ with a single, a home run, and a walk as his only positive outcomes in 12 PA. So most of that 84 is from last night’s home run. Hardly the signs of an inevitable break out.

If we dig a little deeper, however, there may be some positive indicators. If we go back one more day and look at his exit velocities, he’s had 13 balls in play out of 16 PA. Of those 13 in play, 6 have had an EV 89 MPH or higher. So he’s been hitting the ball fairly hard. It’s not eye popping exit velocity, but it is an average EV of 86.3 MPH for those 13 balls in play. That’s close to his season long average of 87.4 MPH which ranks 184th in baseball. Last season it was 85.2 MPH, so why the poorer production?

It comes down to launch angle, mostly.

So far, in 2018, Christian Vazquez has an 11.1 degree average launch angle. That’s not all that high, actually, but it is much higher than his 2017 figure of 7.9 degrees. And that’s the key. Christian Vazquez, game tying home run last night or not, has very little power. So putting the ball into the air isn’t going to lead to good results like it would for someone like J.D. Martinez or Mookie Betts. Ground balls tend to be the hardest hit. You are more likely to square up with the pitch when your bat moves through the zone between 0 and 10 degrees. When you lift the ball into the air, you are sacrificing optimal contact (as far as exit velocity is concerned) for a greater launch angle. For a player with some legitimate pop, this is a good thing.

That’s the whole theory behind the Barrel as a statistic. And it’s why, despite the home run last night, Christian Vazquez still has no Barrels on the season. His home run was hit at 32 degrees and 98 MPH. That’s a home run about 33% of the time. (You can actually click here and check for yourself.) In order for a 98 MPH ball in play to be considered a Barrel, it would have needed to come off the bat between 26 and 30 degrees. Or, at 32 degrees, he would have needed to generate an exit velocity of at least 100 MPH. That one got out, but for the most part, Christian Vazquez is not a hitter who should be trying to join the “Launch Angle Revolution.” He needs a level swing and to put the ball into play as ground balls and line drives.

Stop putting the ball in the air so much. 

Boston Red Sox
Boston Red Sox /

Boston Red Sox

His ground ball rate last season was 47.1%. It has dropped 5% this season. His line drive rate is down 5.9%. That’s an increase of nearly 11% on fly balls for a hitter who just doesn’t have the ability to crush it frequently. We could look at his BABIP of .217 and just assume he’s been unlucky. Even if we were conservative and just regressed to something below his career rate, however, we’d likely be giving him more benefit of the doubt than we should. Softly hit fly balls will generate low BABIPs. They just aren’t productive.

It would be one thing if he was adding more balls in play to the 10-26 degree range. xStats.org tracks several ranges of launch angles with LD% (low drives: 10-19 degrees) and HD% (hard drives: 19-26) being the best ranges for balls in the air. They are frequently hit hard and tend to go for singles and doubles with some home runs mixed in. In fact, HD% is the most productive of all the rangest tracked. FB% is between 26 and 39 degrees and is most productive range for home runs, but lags behind in overall production. That’s because balls hit above 30 degrees require a significant enough increase in exit velocity to go for hits and we end up seeing a lot of fly outs in this range.

But Christian Vazquez likely isn’t living in the lower half of that range.

One of the reasons Christian Vazquez was productive in 2017 is that he had a solid LD percentage. 21.7% of his balls in play came off the bat between 10 and 19 degrees, and 4.5% were 19-26 degrees. Most of his productive balls in play were in the LD%. His HD% has remained low at 4.1% this year, but his low drives have dropped to 15.6%. Those drops are fueling an increase of pop ups, or balls hit at 39 degrees or higher. He’s gone from 15.1% to 20.5% from last year to this.

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So he’s not just hitting the ball in the air a little more. He’s hitting it at significantly higher launch angles. That means far more balls in play in ranges that aren’t typically productive, and certainly won’t be for a hitter without much raw power. The fix for Christian Vazquez is simple. Level out your swing and put the ball in play with low drives and ground balls more often. You don’t have the power to be a fly ball hitter. And, frankly, this Red Sox team doesn’t need you to.