FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When Red Sox director of pro scouting Jared Porter looked down at his stopwatch on Friday night, he did a double take. When catcher Christian Vazquez fired a bullet to cut down Twins shortstop Trevor Plouffe on a stolen base attempt, his stopwatch registered something Porter had never seen: a 1.69 pop time from Vazquez's glove to the glove of second baseman Dustin Pedroia.
"I assumed I was wrong," Porter acknowledged.
After all, he'd almost never seen a time below 1.8 seconds from home to second.
Porter wasn't alone. Numerous members of the Red Sox front office were left with jaws agape after Vazquez's throw, and so there was peculiar interest in reviewing the TV footage of his howitzer. Porter turned out to be correct: Vazquez hadn't quite managed a 1.69. Still, the 1.77 seconds from his glove to Pedroia's represented the best time numerous team officials had ever seen -- the single greatest throw that longtime baseball men had ever seen a catcher make.
"That's incredibly fast," said Porter.
"IWhen I saw the video, I said, 'Holy smokes.' That was pretty awesome, " said Sox roving catching instructor Chad Epperson. "I'd never seen [a throw] in the 1.7s. That's not saying it's never happened, but I'd never seen it. I [looked at Vazquez's throw] on videotape and it was 1.77. Pretty impressive. Pretty impressive. I've gotten him at 1.8s several times. It's gotten to the point where if I get a 1.94, I'm like, 'What went wrong?' But he takes pride in that. From ball to hand, glove to hand, his feet work really good together, the dots connect, he's capable of it."
It would be one thing if Vazquez's amazing throw had occurred in isolation. It has not.
He's caught all four runners who have attempted to steal against him while also picking off a runner. His arm strength from behind the plate has been dazzling, leaving several players and team officials little choice but to shake their heads at a show of skill as impressive as any they've seen when it comes to the very specific trait of a catcher's arm strength.
Still, while Vazquez has commanded plenty of attention for his defensive gifts in his first big league spring training, it's no accident that the 22-year-old has emerged as the Sox' best defensive catcher in their minor league system. Instead, it represents the culmination of a lifelong baseball pursuit.
At times, growing up in Puerto Rico, Vazquez moved around the diamond, playing first and third base. But when he was eight years old, Vazquez's father bought him a video tape of Puerto Rican hero Ivan Rodriguez offering a catching tutorial. Vazquez was mesmerized.
"It's a mirror: Pudge does this, we do the same. That's the reason we have a lot of catchers in Puerto Rico," said Vazquez. "I learned a lot [from the tape] -- the basics to be a catcher. ... I saw that tape every day and learned."
The position of catcher carries considerable prestige in Puerto Rico, for fairly obvious reasons. The island has produced a long line of standouts at the position, among them Benito Santiago, Rodriguez, Jorge Posada and the remarkable Molina brothers (Benjie, Jose and All-Star Yadier). And with that long line of role models, Vazquez never had any doubts that he wanted to join their ranks.
The video tape was a valuable introduction to some of the finer points of catching, and Vazquez embraced its lessons. He learned about elements like stances and blocking -- "I love blocking," he said. "When you get a strikeout, the ball is there, and I throw it as fast as I can to first. I love that." -- and even as a kid he would jump rope and do ladders (side-to-side agility drills) in order to get the quick feet needed to be a catcher.
He went to high school at the Puerto Rican Baseball Academy run by Major League Baseball, typically waking up at 5 a.m. and leaving his home for the hour-long drive to get there in time for the start of a three-hour practice at 8 o'clock, which was followed by six hours of class and a drive home that concluded around 6:30 or 7 p.m. During those routine-bound days, he incorporated long toss -- backing up farther and farther -- to build up the arm strength that is now commanding so much attention.
The Sox took him in the ninth round of the 2008 draft, with the sense that, if he could clean up his footwork and keep his body in shape (at a listed 5-foot-9, 195 pounds, Vazquez has long fought his weight, dating back to his time in the Baseball Academy), his standout defensive tools gave him an excellent chance to become at least a defense-first backup, and perhaps something more than that if his bat could develop.
For the most part, Vazquez's development had garnered only mild public notice in the professional ranks. Because he's been in the lower minors, with others such as Ryan Lavarnway (a fellow member of the draft class of 2008), Luis Exposito and Dan Butler ahead of him, and 2011 first-rounder Blake Swihart behind him, he was obscured in a sense, at least when it came to prospect rankings. The Sox saw it differently.
"There's obviously been steps forward, but you always saw the upside. The last couple years he's been able to put some things together," said Epperson. "He's always registered in our minds. You're talking about a very young player. You liked his upside. You were trying to get him to put it all together, which he's starting to do. You'll see guys who maybe are not make the front page or the magazines and stuff like that, but they're on our radar."
Back in Puerto Rico during the offseasons, Vazquez worked with the same trainer as the Molina brothers, and so he joined the famed catchers (Yadier and Jose) in workouts starting in 2010.
"We worked in the morning in the gym and on the track. After that we would go to the field and hit and catch," said Vazquez.
His defensive tools sharpened. He threw out 41 percent of opponents who attempted to steal against him in 2010 in the Single-A South Atlantic League, and last year, he gunned out 42 percent of would-be thieves in the High-A Carolina League. On top of that, he employed his arm strength to pick off a considerable number of runners.
Pitchers took notice. Left-hander Rich Hill, who worked with Vazquez while passing through Salem on a rehab assignment last year, raved about the catcher's big league-ready defensive abilities, echoing sentiments that have become common among minor leaguers in the Sox' system.
"You're comfortable with guys on base. You're comfortable if guys are going to steal because he's going to throw them out. He's awesome at receiving, awesome at interacting you," left-hander Drake Britton noted earlier in camp. "It's just an automatic positive vibe when you see him squat down to catch."
Those defensive abilities -- which were on display following last season in both the Arizona Fall League and the Puerto Rican Winter League -- convinced the Sox to place Vazquez on the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft this winter. It seemed a bit of a stretch to commit a precious roster spot to a player who had hit just .205 with a .280 OBP and .260 slugging mark in 20 Double-A games last year, but the Sox were convinced that if Vazquez was left exposed, a team might take a flyer on him and fall in love with his defensive abilities to the point of carrying him for the year.
"You have to protect a guy like that," said Epperson. "This is a special kind of player that is going to run this well when he's behind the plate."
Because he was protected, Vazquez has been in big league camp for the first time this year, where he's making the most of his opportunity. His work behind the plate has been a head-turner in spring training. His ability to work with the pitching staff and shut down opponents' running games has been little short of remarkable.
"He’s our closer behind the plate," said Sox manager John Farrell. "It’s impressive, isn’t it? Yeah, he’s been impressive behind the plate."
There are no questions about his defensive abilities. Barring injury, those alone will likely give Vazquez a major league future. The bigger questions surround his offense, and whether he has a chance to hit enough to be a starter.
He had a strong year when repeating at Single-A Greenville in 2011, hitting .283 with a .358 OBP and .505 slugging mark along with 18 homers. But last year, his numbers in the High-A Carolina League hardly stood out, as he hit .254/.344/.369.
However, despite those modest offensive totals, Vazquez enjoyed a dominant offensive stretch. Playing in his age 21 season, he recovered from a brutal first half (.223/.308/.293) to go on a tear in his first 29 games of the second half in the Carolina League, hitting .343/.448/.581 with five homers and 10 doubles to force his way to Portland. And, despite hitting .205 with a .541 OPS in Double-A, he had quality at-bats in his first exposure to the upper levels, with eight walks and nine punchouts offering evidence of an offensive foundation.
"He manages his at-bats. He might not always go 4-for-4, but he manages his ABs," said Epperson. "If he can continue to do that, that's only a plus given what he can do behind the plate. And he's going to hit. No doubt about it."
Vazquez is 3-for-14 with a double and a walk in camp. His at-bats have been largely competitive, even if they don't scream of someone who is major league ready with his offense just yet.
He's almost certainly at least a full year away from the major leagues, perhaps more. Still, in a camp that has been most noteworthy for the impression made by Sox prospects such as Jackie Bradley Jr., Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa, Vazquez has also offered an intriguing glimpse of a considerable talent in the middle of the field.
That he would be doing so with the eyes of the big league staff watching him has come as little surprise to those who have seen him the longest.
"His first big league camp, he's going in there and making an impression and being who he is," said Epperson. "He's come a long way. He's done a really good job year by year, getting better. The thing that's special about him is, the bigger the venue, the more he gets amped up. He fears nothing. He loves that spotlight."
For the moment, that is a spot that he is occupying comfortably.