The Twins closed one of the most apparent holes on their roster when they signed free agent backstop Christian Vázquez to a 3-year, $30-million contract. With last season’s trade acquisition catchers Gary Sánchez and Sandy León off to free agency, the Twins sought a time-share partner for Ryan Jeffers and found their man in the 32-year-old former Boston (and briefly Houston) catcher.
On the surface, Vázquez might appear to be a somewhat awkward fit for a job-share with Jeffers because he’s a veteran catcher that has usually been the primary catcher in his career and hits right-handed (as Jeffers does). To that point, many free agent prognosticators (including me) had suggested the Twins would pursue a left-handed hitting option to pair with Jeffers.
Despite that superficial constraint, the Twins have run with multiple righty-hitting catchers in recent seasons, beginning with Mitch Garver and Jeffers in 2021 and continuing with Sánchez and Jeffers last season.
A Right-Right Platoon That Works
The Twins believe this next right-right pairing can work partly because of Vázquez’s offensive profile. Vázquez has been an on-the-low-side-of-average hitter for the position, batting a contact-heavy .261/.310/.386 (.301 wOBA, 84 wRC+) in his eight-season career. Per FanGraphs, the league average wRC+ for catchers has ranged between 84 and 93 and averaged about 88 since 2014. Vázquez’s triple-slash line has been somewhat stronger since 2019, .271/.318/.416 (.315 wOBA, 95 wRC+), nearly equal to Sánchez’s .206/.296/.432 (.311 wOBA, 98 wRC+) over the same time frame.
Vázquez fits decently well with Jeffers, as Sánchez also did, because he owns much less pronounced platoon splits and holds his own against right-handed pitching better than his younger counterpart. For his career, Vázquez has hit .263/.310/.372 (.297 wOBA, 81 wRC+) with an 18.5% strikeout rate and a 5.8% walk rate against righties and a more powerful .257/.309/.422 (.312 wOBA, 92 wRC+) with a 16.7% strikeout rate and 7.1% walk rate against lefties.
Jeffers, on the other hand, has wide platoon splits, performing much weaker against righties, .185/.256/.361 (.270 wOBA, 72 wRC+), than lefties, .263/.344/.450 (.346 wOBA, 125 wRC+) in his career.
That combination sets up a reasonable platoon where Vázquez should take the majority of the opportunities against right-handers and Jeffers should be the regular starting catcher and a pinch-hitting option against lefties.
“Makes Your Pitching Staff Better”
While the two-time World Series champion Vázquez should continue to be more than serviceable at the plate for the position, he’s getting a multi-year free-agent deal more for his work behind it and in the clubhouse.
“I can tell you we continued to hear over and over again, ‘[Vázquez] is the guy that’s going to make your pitching staff better,’” Twins President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey said at Vázquez’s introductory press conference. “Obviously, on the [offensive] side, he contributes on that side, too. I don’t want to minimize that. But what he can do as a leader, as a catcher, and how much pride he takes in that really allowed him to stand out from the group.”
That enablement of the pitching staff starts with availability and Vázquez is one of only two qualified catchers across the past four seasons. Just 54 backstops have caught more than 1,000 innings over that span and Vázquez ranks second in games caught (401) and third in innings caught (3,195.1) on that list.
It also reflects Vázquez’s defensive abilities. Catcher defense, even more than defense at every other position, is not an easy thing to objectively pin down. Nonetheless, we can look at its component parts and metrics to get a good sense.
The Components of Catcher Defense
On that same list of 54 catchers discussed above, Vázquez is tied for fifth with J.T. Realmuto with +22 defensive runs saved. Sánchez is tied for 47th with -15. Vázquez is 11th in throwing out stealing baserunners, having cut down 29.4% of attempts thanks to above-average catch and throw skills (72nd percentile pop time in 2022). That will be a welcome improvement over Sánchez’s 22.4% caught-stealing rate (35th) and Garver’s 19.4% (49th) over the same span.
In terms of game management and working with pitchers, Vázquez has a sterling reputation and is tied for seventh with +6 runs saved from influencing pitchers’ ERA (rCERA). Garver has also scored well (+5) there, but Sánchez has been one of the worst catchers by reputation and that metric, ranking 52nd with -10.
If you want someone to blame, I am going to offer up Gary Sanchez and his pitch calling.— Jeremy Maschino (@JMaschino_56) September 7, 2022
This is an absolutely inexcusable pitch call. No pitcher on the Twins staff has a good enough changeup to throw it to the same-handed hitter.
This should have been a slider. Get him out. pic.twitter.com/fvSkQQlie0
In terms of blocking pitches to prevent passed balls and wild pitches, Vázquez is not a standout overall but is still a sizeable upgrade over Sánchez and Garver. On a per-inning basis, Vázquez has allowed .064 wild pitches and passed balls since 2019, which ranks about average (31st). Sánchez has allowed .077, ranking 44th, and Garver .088, ranking 51st.
In the Eye of the Umpire: Pitch Framing
There are multiple different-but-directionally-similar approaches to estimating how well catchers steal called strikes for their pitchers. Generally speaking in an over-simplified way, the different methods compare the probability of a strike in any count, to either left-handed or right-handed batters, at each location in and around the plate with the actual ball-strike call results.
Those results are then converted into runs saved at a value of 0.125 to 0.14 runs per additional strike, depending on the host source. This piece from FanGraphs introducing their approach includes a nice summary and links to the leading variations, their evolutions, and how they compare to each other.
No matter the method used, Vázquez stands out for his work around the edges of the strike zone. In total, he ranks fifth by FanGraphs’ pitch framing metric with +20.7 runs since 2019. By that, Garver is 31st with -0.3 and Sánchez is 43rd with -8.2. By Baseball Info Solutions’ Strike Zone Runs Saved (rSZ) Vázquez is tied for ninth with +12, Garver is 27th with +2, and Sánchez is 40th with -3.
By Statcast’s pitch framing metrics, Vázquez has been above average every season of his career and compares favorably to Garver and Sánchez:
The table above shows each catcher’s percentile rank by Statcast’s pitch framing metric and the called strike percentage of all non-swings in the shadow zones. Save for Sánchez in 2018 and Garver in 2021, which both could be outliers, Vázquez has consistently led this trio in turning borderline pitches into called strikes.
While Vázquez being a strong overall framer is attractive enough, breaking his data down more granularly reveals a more specific reason why Vázquez and the Twins likely make for a good match.
The plots below illustrate Vázquez’s work in the eight zones around the strike zone (i.e., the shadow zone) and show the called strike percentage of all non-swings in each zone for the past four seasons. The deeper the red shading the more above-average the framing in that zone. You can clearly see that he has been a strong framer at the top of the strike zone.
That Vázquez possesses this skill is attractive to Minnesota, perhaps more than any other team, because the Twins have built a pitching staff that lives upstairs. In fact, the pitching staff the Twins have assembled works at the top of the zone more than any other group in the game. Last season, Twins pitchers led baseball in throwing 12.6% of their pitches in the high shadow zones (Statcast attack zones 11, 12, and 13).
Framing high pitches well seems to be a trait the Twins have started to target in player acquisition after much of their previous emphasis had been on improving framing skills in the lower third of the zone. León was the best pitch framer at the top of the strike zone in 2021 and would have been one of the best last season had he played enough to qualify.
In 2023, it seems probable the Twins could have an even higher rate of pitches located up. Improved health and the resultant innings for the four-seam-reliant Bailey Ober and Tyler Mahle would help drive that percentage up, which is to say nothing of the need for both Jorge López and Emilio Págan to work up in the zone more often.
How Much Is It Worth?
Within a season, the range of framing runs between the best and worst catchers goes from something around +15 to something around -20. For example, in 2021, by Statcast’s metric, the range was from +10 to -18 among qualified catchers. Last season it was from +17 to -14. FanGraphs metric ran from +19 to -15.7 last season.
Using the rough rule of thumb that ten runs equate to one win, we can see that, while the gap between the top framers and bottom framers has narrowed as more teams have gotten smarter about the value of framing, the impact can still be worth a couple of wins in a season.
If we just do a simple, back-of-the-envelope estimate (with all the caveats that entails) and replace the 47.2% strike rate Sánchez provided in his 714-inning workload with Vázquez’s 47.9% rate and apply it to the 4,539 non-swing shadow zone pitches thrown by the Twins last season, it works out to about 16 additional called strikes, which would be worth about two runs.
That estimate might be conservative because last season was one of Sánchez’s strongest (thanks to his effort with the Twins to develop his framing skills) and one of Vázquez’s weakest framing seasons since 2018. If we do the same exercise with their five-year weighted average strike rates (49.2% for Vázquez and 47.4% for Sánchez), the result is about 40 additional called strikes and five runs saved, or about half a win last season. It’s reasonable to expect that Vázquez will catch more often than Sánchez did for Minnesota, which could also further enhance this marginal benefit.
In this year’s free agent catching class, switch-hitters Omar Narváez and Tucker Barnhart both have graded out as strong framers the past three seasons but have primarily made their numbers from the bottom of the zone. Mike Zunino has been an excellent framer, including up high, but is recovering from surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and has been wildly inconsistent with his three true outcomes approach at the plate from year to year. Austin Hedges is another excellent framer but might be the worst hitter in baseball at any position. The top free agent catcher, Willson Contreras, is a notoriously poor pitch framer and was probably never a serious option for the Twins.
Given that market and the approach and strengths of the Twins’ pitchers, it seems straightforward to see why the front office targeted Vázquez this winter. The very first article I ever published was an analysis of the Twins adding catcher Jason Castro in free agency before 2017 and the impact he could have on the Twins’ pitching. Castro was a slightly below-average hitter who earned a multi-year deal largely because of his veteran experience and framing prowess. It seems a lot like Minnesota is going back to that well with this signing.
It’s reasonable to expect Vázquez to more or less approximate the offensive production of Sánchez, albeit with a very different shape. But the main source of his value should come from the significant upgrades he brings in all the main components of catcher defense and pitch framing, as well as his significant winning experience and leadership traits.