As Blake Swihart moves on, Christian Vazquez reminds us why he caught on

The Red Sox catcher had a hand in every victory this weekend against the Rays.

Christian Vázquez Red Sox MLB
Christian Vazquez is the unquestioned starter behind the plate for the 2019 Red Sox. –Getty Images

COMMENTARY

About 20 minutes before the start of Boston’s step-forward sweep of Tampa Bay this weekend, the Red Sox announced they’d traded Blake Swihart to Arizona. As we discussed here, it was a conclusion three years in the making, dating to when the team pulled the plug on Swihart behind the plate a week into the 2016 season and recalled Christian Vazquez, whose lost year to Tommy John surgery helped create Swihart’s one true run with the Red Sox.

In the run-up to Friday, there was the anger and disappointment that comes when a first-round pick is perceived to have been developed poorly, then given up on. Wasted. Squandered. In this case, Alex Cora wore it for letting Swihart wither on the vine all last season. Sandy Leon as well, the pitcher-preferred receiver getting Swihart’s spot despite hitting .200 — his 49 wRC+ means he’s less than half as offensively useful as an average player — since the start of the 2017 season. There was plenty for the Red Sox brain trust, who we’d be remiss not to note has the same feelings about Swihart’s catching potential as his new team does.

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Also, however, there was Vazquez. What made him more worthy than Swihart, who put up better offensive numbers in 2015 than Vazquez had the prior year? Why was Vazquez, a pedestrian player for most of last year, the chosen one?

There are multiple reasons for that. You saw almost all of them on display at Tropicana Field.

This weekend’s three wins in St. Petersburg, Fla. have the potential to be remembered for a few things, especially if they feed into a strong 10-game homestand, which seems plenty possible given it begins Monday with four against forgettable Detroit. (Three each with Tampa and Oakland suggest a sterner test.) Michael Chavis’s 109-mph debut missile and his genuinely endearing postgame interview. Looking up and realizing Ryan Brasier saved all three games, giving him six of the team’s seven. Mookie Betts going 6-for-12. Rafael Devers making play after play at third.

I’ll remember Jerry Remy’s terrible Ric Flair impression up there, the product of pure joy over what Vazquez pulled on Tommy Pham with a game slipping away.

“I saw on the pitch before and gave the sign to [first baseman] Steve Pearce, and we got it,” Vazquez told reporters on Saturday night. “We had a chance there. Why not? If [Willy] Adames got a hit, it’s a tie game. It was fun to win the game like that.”

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In Friday’s 6-4 victory, Vazquez barreled up a sinker for a two-run homer and a lead in the fifth inning. In Sunday’s 4-3, 11-inning capper, he came up with two on in the 11th and crushed a fly to deep center, enough to score the winning run in a second straight game that Matt Barnes surrendered a lead in. Oh, and behind the plate?

The starters have a 2.86 ERA (7 earned runs in 22 innings) during Vazquez’s last four games, and Tampa — third in stolen bases before the series — was caught in their only attempt of the weekend on top of what happened to Pham.

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It was a weekend of relatively high stakes and big moments. At least a little bit like last October, when the Red Sox entrusted Vazquez with 10 of 14 starts and when he validated his place in the organization.

“The adrenaline and all the pressure we had to win, I think that helped me to get better in those games, to be consistent,” Vazquez told the Globe this spring. “I need to play like that in the season. … Win every pitch, catching every pitch, blocking every pitch.”

He pointedly didn’t do that a year ago, immediately after signing a three-year contract at the end of the spring. Whether it was complacency or struggling to live up to his newfound fortune (and place in the franchise’s future), Vazquez hit just .207/.257/.283 in 80 regular-season games. (He missed two months with a broken finger.) Among the 37 catchers to get at least 250 plate appearances, Vazquez was 26th in WAR (despite being top-10 defensively) and 36th in wRC+, ahead only of Leon.

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Of course, catcher is markedly not an offense-first position, its practitioners posting the lowest collective OPS of any position other than pitcher each of the last four years. Last season, catchers had a .678 OPS, narrowly edging Eduardo Nunez (.677). Vazquez, however, went from 12 defensive runs saved in 2017 to zero. He was, until coming back in September, entirely underwhelming and came close to losing his job altogether.

“I already told him where he was on my list,” Cora told reporters this spring, referencing Vazquez’s 2018. “He went from the penthouse to down there.”

It feels like ancient history at the moment, that Saturday game-ender — Vazquez’s seventh career pick-off and the first to end an MLB game in two years — the epitome of baseball awareness and execution. Vazquez has only caught 3 of 9 potential base stealers this season, but he’s still at an excellent 41 percent for his career. He is hitting just .208, but with 11 RBI, seven of his 11 hits going for extra bases. (He spoke this spring about buying in to the launch angle craze and wanting to hit the ball in the air more.)

He is, as he was in the fall, integral to the success of the thing. And whatever happens with Swihart in the desert, it’ll be a lot easier to take if Christian Vazquez keeps it that way.