The catcher position is just the worst for fantasy. If you don’t draft Gary Sanchez, you’re essentially stuck with a handful of hitters that would be borderline rosterable if they played any other position, and another handful of young players with potential that might turn out to be total garbage.
That’s why a lot of people, myself included, often stream a catcher who’s hot, and then drop him once he gets cold for whatever new catcher is heating up (if you do that and you’re not reading Dave Cherman’s catchers to stream article each week, you’re making a mistake).
Lately, that heating-up catcher has been Christian Vazquez. He’s actually been solid all year, posting a .297/.333/.523 line with 15 home runs, fifth-most among catchers this season.
But over the past month, Vazquez has been like Incubus’ second-best song— stellar (everyone groan, it’s okay), slashing .316/.341/.633 with seven home runs, almost doubling his season total in just a month.
Vazquez has shown in the past that he can hit for a high average. In the minors, he often hit around the .280s, and in 99 games in 2017, he hit .290, so a .297 batting average on the season doesn’t sound crazy.
What does sound out of the ordinary for Vazquez is the power. In his 291 major league games prior to this season, Vazquez logged a grand total of 10 home runs. In the minors, his season-best home run total was 18 in 2011 at Low-A in 105 games.
Now, all of a sudden, Vazquez is on pace for about 25 home runs. Where did that come from?
A New Approach at the Plate
One of the first things to look for when a hitter is crushing the ball all of a sudden is a change in approach, and Vazquez has done exactly that.
During the offseason, Vazquez spent a lot of time in Miami working with a hitting coach on making adjustments to his approach, specifically driving the ball better.
“A lot of teams, they’re doing a lot of shifts, and ground balls are out,” Vazquez said. “So I think you need to beat the shift and hit it to the gap so you can drive the ball better.”
It’s a pretty noticeable change in his approach, take a look at him last year:
And now take a look at him this year:
It’s not just a change in his stance, it’s an entirely different approach. In 2018, he’s standing at the plate, bouncing his bat and his front foot. Then when he swings, he double taps his front foot.
This year it’s a much calmer, simpler approach. He’s not bouncing the bat around, just moving it some. His front foot is still while waiting for the pitch, and he ditched the front foot double tap.
So has it worked? Well he’s definitely hitting the ball harder than he ever has before:
Right now, his Statcast hard-hit rate (percentage of balls hit at least 95 mph) is sitting at 42.1%, the best of his career by far (his previous career-best was 33.1% in 2016). Similarly, his average exit velocity is sitting at 90 mph, also a career best, and his barrel rate is sitting at 6.9%, another career high. You get similar results when you look at his hard-hit rate from Baseball Info Solutions, which is sitting at 34.3%, a career best.
So undeniably, Vazquez has been hitting the ball harder than he has before, and that’s resulted in more home runs.
And remember how Vazquez said he wanted to beat the shift? Well, it looks like he’s doing just that, hitting the ball pretty evenly across the field:
So if now you’re thinking, ‘Okay, but is this just a hot streak? Or is this legit?’ I’m right there with you, so let’s take a look.
The short answer is yes, this looks pretty legit. Even the hot month he’s had looks pretty real when you look at his actual and expected stats:
This past month has clearly been a bit of good luck (I hope you kind of already figured that), but the gap between his expected and actual stats isn’t all that huge, and that’s a really good sign.
So can you actually trust Vazquez? I think you can, to an extent, with a bit of caution.
First, take a look at his xwOBA chart over the course of this season:
Lots of ups and downs there, and I do worry that you’re going to be seeing hot and cold spells from Vazquez. A look at his expected stats on the season show a .257 xBA (.297 AVG) and a .455 xSLG (.523 SLG), both of which suggest some significant regression.
Now, I don’t think he’s going to plummet all of a sudden. Expected stats are certainly very useful, but they’re not to be taken as gospel, and I think he can maintain a high average. However, with a relatively mediocre 6.9% barrel rate (good for his career numbers, but not great overall), I do worry a bit about him maintaining the success.
I also worry a bit about his plate discipline. While he’s got a new approach, his plate discipline hasn’t changed much at all. His chase rate is sitting at 33.6%, right in line with his career, and his SwStr rate has jumped up to a career-worst 8.2%. That’s still a good SwStr rate to have, but the fact that it has increased alongside an higher strikeout rate of 18.9% (15.2% last year) worries me a bit, as does his pretty poor 5.6% walk rate.
That doesn’t mean he’ll be bad. But mediocre plate discipline and a guy who hits to all fields with a relatively poor barrel rate could easily make for a volatile player.
Still, I don’t want this to scare you from hanging on to him or picking him up (he’s available in 43% of leagues). I think the adjustments he’s made are pretty legit, the power increase doesn’t look like dumb luck, nor does the high batting average.
(Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire)