Sunday, for the first time ever, I watched an entire MLB game where the catcher’s ability to move gracefully and efficiently was the highlight.
It’s not often that this part of a game stands out, but Christian Vazquez absolutely stole the show. His ability to reign in Allen Webster (and subsequently Andrew Miller) won the game for the Red Sox.
When evaluating a catcher, identifying the “it” factor is a gratifying experience. For me, it’s like watching ballet. A great dancer’s steps are silent, and each movement is fluid with nary a jerk. The performance produces an emotional response in the spectator.
An NL West scout told me what he looks for in a backstop.
“Just quietness all over. Ideally, the body is squared up to the pitcher and is still upon receiving. The thumb is down and the glove is completely quiet. A lot of the better receivers I’ve seen show the ability to have the majority of the glove over the plate … i.e., if it’s an outside pitch to a RHH, catching the ball toward the tip of the glove. If it’s away to a LHH, catching the ball closer to the palm. The quietness of the glove, body direction, and manipulation of the glove’s location within the strike zone are all qualities that make an advanced receiver, to me.”
The difference between absorbing (as an evaluator) an excellent receiver versus a below average one is not dissimilar to the difference between watching a horse and a cheetah run. One is heavy and violent, even if it gets the job done; the other light and graceful, yet still explosive.
In the end, it’s a combination of this fluidity and quality mechanics which gives Vazquez and similar pillowy receivers their shine.
It took an advanced receiver to effectively manage the likes of Allen Webster on this day. Webster featured a heavy sinker and was all over the strike zone, in and out, throwing 42 strikes and 44 balls. A handful of those strikes were a figment of the umpire’s imagination, a credit to Vazquez’s confident, delicate pitch-framing ability.
Mike Lieberthal spent 14 seasons behind the plate earning All-Star honors and a Gold Glove during that span. He says guys like Vazquez are born with those exceptional mitts.
“Good receivers and framers are kind of like infielders with soft hands. Those hands are god given. Don’t get me wrong; you can get better with proper instruction … working low to high so that sink and low off-speed pitches can be framed correctly.”
Everyone noticed Vazquez’s single moment in the spotlight: When he gunned down Ben Zobrist with an impeccable exchange, balletic feet and strong throw.
Throughout the game, however, Vazquez handled every type of pitch beautifully – and in various locations. He set up quietly, displaying his target with ideal timing, was visibly invested in the batter’s setup, and in charge of the pitcher at every turn. Additionally, he manipulated and condensed his body to present an ideal target.
“Making yourself big or small, according to what the pitcher likes is key,” former Red Sox captain Jason Varitek stressed to me.
On a day in which David Ortiz hit a deafening three-run home run and Jackie Bradley Jr. crashed into the center-field wall after making a majestic grab to steal a triple from Evan Longoria, Christian Vazquez was silent. And it was unforgettable.