The Red Sox won Game 2 of the 2021 ALDS over the Rays in dramatic fashion. Catcher Christian Vazquez hit the walk-off two-run home run in the bottom of the 13th inning to give the Red Sox the game and the advantage in the series. The Boston catcher’s blast capped off a grueling battle complete with stellar pitching and defense, blown chances and controversial call. I am not going recap the game here or weigh in on ground-rule doubles- an area of baseball law that has been especially kind to Boston in the play-offs. I am writing today to honor the game’s hero, the ginger backstop Christian Vazquez.
I love Christian Vazquez. I loved him long before he came up in the bottom of the 13th inning and caught a first-pitch fastball sending it into the monster seats for the win. I will love him long after he has left the Red Sox and baseball and this mortal coil.
I think there are two main ways that baseball fans love players. The first is the simpler one. We love our stars. That is not difficult to understand. It is not different than other sports. Red Sox fans love Perdo and Papi and Pedey and Bogey and on and on. Yankees fans love Jeter and Judge and Mo and Pettite and all the others with guady monuments and somber-toned Yankeeographies. It is the same in football and basketball and soccer and hockey and any other sport you can think of. We love stars because we love excellence. We love elite performances and big numbers and highlight-reel heroics and the stars give us those on the regular. That is what makes them stars.
But there is another way that baseball fans love players, a more complicated one. If you talk long enough to any baseball fan, you inevitably find out that they have at least one player who they love that is not a star, possibly not even a starting player or high-leverage reliever, and at times, not even a very good player in the general reckoning. I remember once disparaging Mets back-up catcher Rene Rivera in a text to a Mets fan friend, only to discover Rivera was his favorite player. The Mets team in question had Jacob DeGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Bartolo Colon. I understood immediately. This is borderline irrational love is just a part of being a baseball fan.
I am sure it happens in other sports as well (shout outs to my Smarf mob homies) but it isn’t as common and it usually tracks a little closer to performance or at least to personality. I just alluded to Marcus Smart, a Celtics fan cult favorite, but Smart has been an elite defender and the visible pulse of the team for years now. That love is not at all disconnected from high-level performance. I’d bet there are some diehard football fans out there with inexplicable attachments to place-holders and long snappers and forgettable special-teamers but this is a rare thing. It is not rare in baseball, not at all.
This is the way I feel about Christian Vazquez. I love him beyond what can be explained by his stat sheet and his player rankings. I am happy to assign all kinds of magic to his playing that cannot be justified by the evidence and is rarely lent the credence of heroics like last night’s. Catcher is my favorite position. I love watching catchers. I can (and do) watch whole games focused only on what the guy behind the plate is doing. And Christian Vazquez is a joy to watch behind the plate. He has always been a joy to watch catch.
By all the advanced metrics, Vazquez is a very good catcher. He has a great arm, soft hands and a still poise behind the dish. He rates well in all the things that catchers need to do. He frames well, controls the running game, blocks balls in the dirt and calls good game. He isn’t much of hitter in general, but he isn’t bad for a catcher, ranking 22nd out of the 32 catchers will at least a 1000 plate appearances since 2017 in wRC+ (85). Vazquez isn’t just some bum I have affection for, but certainly isn’t a star either. Yet, I hold him in roughly the same regard as I do Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts and Nate Eovaldi and I harbor the possibly irrational belief that he matters as much to this team as those superior players do.
This is partly just my obsession with catching, but it also has a lot to do with the Red Sox last playoff run. In 2018, Boston had a juggernaut of team, but they also faced one of the most difficult playoff runs in history. To win the World Series that year, they had to beat three 100-win teams. Against the Yankees in the ALDS, Vazquez stood out in stark contrast to Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez. Sanchez is a star, at least at the plate, with a 107 wRC+ and an eye-popping .245 Isolated Power mark. Sanchez is not, however, a catcher. I don’t mean that he isn’t a good defensive. I mean he doesn’t belong at the position. His fielding stats on Fangraphs aren’t great, but they don’t show the whole picture. Sanchez is not good at throwing baserunners out and his framing metrics are so-so. None of that really matters through, because watching the 2018 ALDS is was clear that he did not have the confidence of his pitchers. Time and time again, with runners on base, Yankee pitchers were hesitant to go with the breaking ball, unwilling to bury a hard slider or a dying curve.
Vazquez was the polar opposite. Even when he was struggling with his location, closer Craig Kimbrel kept trying to get Yankees hitters (and later Astros hitters and Dodgers hitters) to chase sliders that dove toward the earth. The Red Sox survived a gauntlet of power hitters in New York, Houston and Los Angeles with a bullpen that had been their Achilles-heel all season. The man behind the plate was a big reason why. Christian Vazquez was the unsung hero of 2018. Now, he is getting a well-deserved moment in the spotlight. You love to see it.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that Aaron Boone didn’t start Sanchez in the Wild Card. Vazquez was also passed over for the start with back-up Kevin Plawecki getting the nod to pair with Eovaldi, who he caught in nine of the ace’s last ten starts. Plawecki delivered both behind the plate and with the bat in that game, and has been great in his role as Nasty Nate’s personal catcher. Alex Cora didn’t hesitate to get Vazquez in the game as soon as Eovaldi was done and he looks brilliant for his confidence in the catcher now. Me, I never had a doubt. I love Christian Vazquez. Now and forever.