FORT MYERS, Fla. — At the start of spring training 2014, Christian Vazquez sat in his same corner locker right next to the main entrance of the Red Sox clubhouse at JetBlue Park. That hasn’t changed but his role certainly has.
Last year, David Ross was the starting catcher coming off a World Series in which he caught the final pitch from Koji Uehara in Game 6 against the Cardinals. A.J. Pierzynski was the back-up. And Vazquez was taking his reps, trying to show the organization he could handle the job if either or both went down for an extended period.
He got that chance in earnest when Pierzynski was traded out of town in July and the team was falling quickly out of the playoff race in the American League. He played 55 games. He batted .240 with just one homer and 20 RBIs.
But clearly that’s not what earned him the job. He handled the pitching staff as a 23-year-old rookie and blew away everyone with some eye-popping defensive numbers. Twenty-nine base runners attempted to steal with him behind the plate. Fifteen were thrown out. That 52 percent rate was nearly double the 27 percent league average. And that didn’t even include the four pickoffs he executed with his gun of a right arm.
Now, in 2015, there is no doubt — Vazquez is the starting catcher, with Ryan Hanigan the veteran back-up. What are the Red Sox expecting in terms of the next step for the 24-year-old defensive weapon?
“The step that we would anticipate him taking this year is handling the pitchers that he did for the half of last year, and understanding even more so what their trigger points are and how to get the most out of them,” manager John Farrell said Monday. “His development as one of the leaders of our pitching staff is going to be challenged because of the number of new faces that are here. Spring training is going to be critical for he and Ryan Hanigan to understand what each pitcher likes in certain situations, what pitch to go to. But I know that in Christian’s commitment to those conversations and the time spent to learn individuals, that’s who he is as a person. That’s him evolving as a game-caller and a catcher behind the plate.”
There’s been another change. Vazquez has traded in No. 55 for No. 7, the same number as his idol Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez. Vazquez said Monday he’s hoping to be just like him. Like Rodriguez had to do, Vazquez will need to understand that learning a pitching staff and grinding through scouting reports should not impact his impressive raw ability.
“That’s started with Christian and every other catcher from the day they sign a pro contract,” Farrell said. “They’re well aware that priority one is to get the most out of the guy on the mound. So, there’s added time needed to their preparation, when you’re thinking about a game plan to a scouting report to how it applies to the given guy that night. But it continues to evolve with each year he’s been at the position, particularly at the big league level. Yeah, there’s a lot on his plate but he’s got the wherewithal to handle all that.”
There’s been another impact from Vazquez: the thought that Blake Swihart — another talented catcher — could be trade bait along with Henry Owens for Cole Hamels. If Swihart stays, there’s the chance that he could actually see major league playing time in Boston.
“We would hope at some point this year he’s ready to step in if the need were to arise but no less talented than Christian,” Farrell said. “Maybe not as advanced because of the [lack] of games caught at the upper levels yet but still, a bright future and a very talented player in his own right.
“We’re fortunate to have such young, talented guys that project to be frontline-type catchers that can impact the running game, and he and Christian are proving that as they gain experience and as they move up the ladder. There’s still some work to be done with Blake.”