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July 10, 2014

The Call-Up

Christian Vazquez

by Al Skorupa and Ben Carsley


The Situation: A.J. Pierzynski and the Red Sox seemed like a nice fit over the winter, but neither his season nor Boston's season went as planned. Pierzynski’s free-swinging ways clashed with the selective lineup Ben Cherington assembled, and his glove was a weakness. As a result, the team grew increasing frustrated with the veteran backstop, leading to whispers that the Sox were contemplating jettisoning him as early as April. With Boston's catching prospects having fine seasons in the minors, the Sox finally pulled the plug on Pierzynski on Wednesday, calling up 23-year-old catcher Christian Vazquez. Vazquez’s breakout year at Pawtucket has tempted Boston to make this move for some time, and the hope is that he can inject a new energy with his impact defensive skills.

Background: The Red Sox took Vazquez in the ninth round of the 2008 draft out of Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and signed him for an $80,000 bonus. Even with a top-10-round grade, Vazquez was seen as a project on both sides of the ball, and his short, stout frame gave rise to concerns about his body, though those liabilities can sometimes turn into assets behind the plate in terms of durability. At the plate, Vazquez’s small frame isn't conducive to power. His bat speed isn’t a strength either, and swing-and-miss has been a big issue. Vazquez has always been able to throw, but the rest of his defensive game lagged behind. Concerns about his glove were such that in the low minors he saw time at third base, with a smattering of appearances at first and second. Over the last couple years, however, he's addressed many of these doubts.

The Scouting: Any discussion of Vazquez begins with his arm. I asserted in April that Vazquez was "the best-throwing catcher in professional baseball right now, and it's not particularly close." Many scouts have described him to me as having one of the best arms they've ever seen, and have eagerly anticipated the crazy pop times Vazquez would show them in Pawtucket.

However, while Vazquez has a plus arm, he lacks top-of-the-scale raw arm strength, and perhaps there's a lesson in that for young catchers. Vazquez nails baserunners as much with his feet as with his arm. Much like fellow cannon-armed Puerto Rican catcher Ivan Rodriguez (a player Vazquez reportedly idolizes), Vazquez has lightning-quick feet behind the plate. He gets out of the crouch in the blink of an eye, and the ball often arrives 5-10 feet before would-be basestealers. His pop times are routinely at or below 1.90, and I've had him as high as 1.74. (I've also clocked him at 1.78 twice, and stories abound of similar readings.)

Vazquez’s snap throws to first and third are as much fun to watch as his throwdowns. Baserunners would be well advised to keep their heads up and not wander too far, even with their secondary lead. Vazquez is a weapon behind the plate who completely shuts down the opposing team's running game. With a wave of his arm he turns the basepaths to quicksand.

While the arm is an "8," the rest of Vazquez’s defensive game has emerged as plus over the last year. His quick feet didn't always translate to good blocking and lateral movement. The tools and athleticism have always been there, but for whatever reason he exhibited some sloppy actions while in the lower levels that he's finally fixed. His receiving is marked by soft hands and strong framing skills. There was some sentiment (as there was with Pudge) that Vazquez would at times sandbag his pitcher by calling for too many fastballs with runners on base. Pitchers have indeed been happier throwing to him this year, and those problems appears to be behind him. None of this is unusual to see in a catcher honing his craft in the minors.

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<< Previous Article
An Agent's Take: How t... (07/10)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article The Call-Up: Arismendy... (07/09)
Next Column >>
Premium Article The Call-Up: Aaron San... (07/23)
Next Article >>
Premium Article 2014 Futures Game Prev... (07/10)

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