MY DAILY CATCHER OBSESSION

Today the focus is on Christian Vazquez, the 32-year-old veteran free agent who is gaining in popularity with St. Louis media and fans.

THE OVERVIEW: Vazquez spent seven-plus seasons with Boston before being traded to Houston last summer, and he teamed with Martin Maldonado to form a catching tandem that was part of the Astros’ run to the World Series title.

There are better catchers out there, catchers who are available, catchers who would cost more money or a bundle of prospects in a trade. But Vazquez has the Yadier Molina vibe that resonates in St. Louis. They’re both from Puerto Rico. They both have tough-dude reps, and are respected for their defense and handling of pitchers.

No question, Molina would strongly endorse the choice of Vazquez to inherit the symbolic throne behind home plate. We love the past in St. Louis, and this is a way to keep the Molina connection going. Molina will be managing Team Puerto Rico – with Vazquez as the catcher – in the upcoming World Baseball Classic.

A free-agent investment in Vazquez, relatively speaking, wouldn’t be overly expensive. That said, if a couple of aggressive teams get involved in the pursuit of Vazquez, the price would go up … but how much?

Vazquez could be a two-year, three-year stopgap until Ivan Herrera – or perhaps another next-generation homegrown catcher – is ready to take over.

How good is Vazquez?

I did some homework, so let’s go through this.

OFFENSE: Last season Vazquez had an impact bat in 318 plate appearances for Boston, slugging .432 with a 109 OPS+ that was nine percent above league average offensively. But he didn’t hit much in his 35 regular-season games for Houston, finishing 32 percent below league average offensively with a 68 OPS+. Overall, combining his work for both teams, Vazquez batted .274, posted a .315 OBP, slugged .399 and was right around league average with his 99 OPS+

— To widen the view, In 924 plate appearances over the last two seasons Vazquez batted .265 with a .311 OBP and .374 slug for a .685 OPS – and was 13 percent below league average offensively based on his adjusted OPS.

– Keep this in mind: Vazquez has been a resident of two hitter-friendly home parks, Fenway and Minute Maid, and that must be factored in. Based on OPS+, Vazquez has performed 23 percent below average offensively on the road during his career. Not good. Pretty bad.

– Sticking to more recent times, (2021-2022) Vazquez was four percent below league average offensively at home, and 21% below average on the road. Not good. Pretty bad.

— In 2022, Vazquez had a .471 slugging percentage at Fenway Park and Minute Maid – and a .325 slug in all other MLB venues. Not good. Kind of alarming.

—Vazquez, who bats from the right side, is 19 percent below league average against RH pitching during his career. He did better over the last two seasons, coming in at 10 percent two seasons at 10% below average vs. righties. Well, I suppose it could be worse.

DEFENSE: The Fielding Bible credited Vazquez with 11 defensive runs saved last season which was fourth best among MLB catchers. At Baseball Prospectus, Vazquez ranked 16th in Fielding Runs Above Average (5.3) among 40 catchers that saw the most action.

– Among 60 catchers that had enough pitches-caught to qualify for the Statcast ratings in 2022, Vazquez was 23rd among the 60 in framing runs, and tied for 29th in strike percentage. His pop-time was above average and ranked tied for 19th.

– He had a caught-stealing rate of 25% in 2021, and 27% in 2022.

– He scored well in the throwing category, ranking 6th overall. And was 18th among the 40 catchers in framing and blocking.

– Based on the Baseball Prospectus data, Vazquez doesn’t suppress the running game all that much; he ranked 31st in Takeoff Rate Above Average. And Vazquez was at the top of the list for most stolen-base attempts (51) against a catcher in 2022.

BONUS POINTS: Vazquez has competed in 31 MLB postseason games. He’s been a part of two World Series champions, catching in 12 postseason games for the 2018 Red Sox and in six games for the 2022 Astros. Vazquez caught the first combined no-hitter in World Series history for the Astros in Game 4 against the Phillies.

Why would the Cardinals sign Vazquez? (1) The Molina echo. He could be branded as Yadi’s natural successor, and the narrative would be popular in a market that’s deeply into nostalgia. (2) Presumably Vazquez would be cost efficient, with no long-term risk, so Bill DeWitt Jr. and John Mozeliak would understandably be pleased with that. (3) He’s a solid, effective receiver. (4) Other than a small number of dissidents, the St. Louis media would approve. (5) In summation, Vazquez would be a safe choice for a risk-averse, budget-minded organization. He’d come to the gig with credibility. But folks need to relax about touting his offense.

Why would the Cardinals go in another direction? (1) They can do better in the catcher search. So if this was about landing the best possible catcher, ownership-management would display the ambition and commitment to make it happen. But that would mean spending more money (free-agent Willson Contreras) or handing over attractive prospects in a trade for Oakland’s Sean Murphy, or one of the Toronto catchers (Alejandro Kirk or Danny Jansen.)

Any Predictions? Not really. Not a hard prediction, anyway. I think the Cardinals will make a play for Murphy or Jansen or Kirk … but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them settle for Vazquez. There’s a lot to like about him. Back to the most meaningful point: The Cardinals have everything they need – revenue, prospects – to make a move that would take the all-purpose quality of their catching to a much higher level. But we’ve seen them back away too many times. This will be their first offseason search for a No. 1 catcher since the post-1999 offseason. Will the Cardinals make the most of it?

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app which is available in your preferred app store.

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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.

 

Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.