Several prominent sites have Boston Red Sox catcher Sandy leon ranked outside the top 10 at his position despite finishing among the best in 2016.
Apr 23, 2015; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon (3) at bat against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Boston Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon must feel a bit like Rodney Dangerfield – the guy gets no respect.
The 27-year old was one of the best Cinderella stories from last season, seemingly coming out of nowhere to establish himself as a key member of a division winning Red Sox team.
Prior to last year Leon had served as a backup catcher that could provide quality defense behind the plate, but struggled to reach the Mendoza Line with his bat. When Boston’s depth at the position was tested last season they turned to Leon, who answered the challenge by shattering his career-high numbers in virtually every category.
Despite that he finished among the elite at his position last year, Leon still has his fair share of doubters.
Last month, ESPN’s Buster Olney released his list of the top 10 catchers in baseball. Leon didn’t make the cut, receiving a mere blurb in the Honorable Mentions section that focused primarily on how stunned elevators were by his emergence.
Olney isn’t alone in his skepticism that Leon can repeat this performance. MLB Network’s Jim Duquette revealed his own list on Thursday, with Leon again noticeably absent.
Jul 4, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon (3) follows through on a double against the Texas Rangers during the fourth inning at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
How is Leon being essentially ignored by these rankings? Did everyone forget what he did last year? As a reminder, here are Leon’s 2016 numbers, alongside his MLB ranking among catchers with a minimum of 275 plate appearances.
Leon had to wait until June to make his season debut, so his counting stats weren’t all that impressive, but give him a full season’s workload at that pace and he’d be in the top 10 in home runs and RBI at his position.
Oh, plus he provides well above-average defense behind the plate, threw out 41 percent of base runners and was the primary catcher for Cy Young award winner Rick Porcello.
Some of the skepticism that Leon can repeat this performance is warranted based on his track record as a replacement-level player, but is he really going to fall off that dramatically? A guy that was arguably one of the five best catchers in the game last year can barely sniff the top 10 entering this season. Why is that?
Aug 13, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon (3) rounds the bases after hitting a home run against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the fifth inning at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
Let’s try to look at this from an outside perspective. For one thing, Leon essentially played only half a season, so the sample size is smaller than it is for the other catchers that are ranked ahead of him.
Leon stole the starting catcher job away with a scorching month of June, hitting a ridiculous .467 with a 1.243 OPS in 12 games that month. Needless to say, there was nowhere to go but down from there. Naturally, Leon regressed in each month after that, but he was still producing in August when he hit .306 with an .893 OPS in 25 games.
After that, Leon fell off a cliff, hitting a pitiful .213 with a .539 OPS in September/October to wrap up the regular season. He was basically a non-factor in the postseason, managing only one hit in 10 at-bats while Boston was swept by the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS. Had the magic worn off? Was Leon reverting back to the player he was before?
A more reasonable explanation may be that Leon crumbled down the stretch after enduring a heavier workload than he ever had before. He only appeared in 78 games for the Red Sox, but that basically doubles the number of games he played at the major league level over his previous four seasons. He also appeared in 36 games for Triple-A Pawtucket last year before getting the call back to Boston, bringing his total to 114 games, which is more than he ever played in a single season before. Leon appeared in 65 of Boston’s final 82 games, a heavy workload for a catcher that takes a beating behind the plate.
Sep 20, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Boston Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon (3) singles in the eighth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. Boston defeated Toronto 4-3. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
The biggest red flag that doubters will point to is Leon’s unsustainable .392 BABIP, which was the second highest among MLB hitters with at least 250 plate appearances. Typically players near the top of this list have the speed to beat out a few infield singles, but when a lead-footed catcher like Leon does it, the results scream “fluke.”
That’s fair, Leon’s BABIP will almost certainly be lower this season, resulting in a drop in batting average. However, his average could plummet 40 points and he’d still have ranked eighth among catchers last season. How much more are people expecting him to fall off? Plus, if we’re going to claim that his batting average was inflated over a three month period by on unreasonably high BABIP then we also have to assume that his below-average .302 BABIP in September/October was partially responsible for his late season fade.
As much as critics want to assume that Leon will fall back to Earth, it’s not as if his breakout is without reason. He worked hard last winter to adjust his swing, standing taller at the plate and becoming more aggressive to prevent pitchers from dictating his at-bats. Nobody could have predicted that would translate into the success Leon had last year, but those that watched his progress could see that he was improving.
May 30, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Boston Red Sox left fielder Blake Swihart (23) triples during the sixth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Red Sox won 7-2. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Matching last year’s production over a full season would be a tall task, but he proved last year that he can hit at the major league level. Some regression should be expected, but he should still remain an above-average catcher. He’ll need to be if he wants to hold off defensive wizard Christian Vazquez for the starting position, as well as Blake Swihart, who we know can hit but still needs to prove he can handle the responsibilities behind the dish.
The potential of both of those young catchers that are breathing down Leon’s neck could be another reason that many of these rankings are hesitant to place him in their top 10. He certainly has the upside to be among the best all-around catchers in the game, but any prolonged slump could open the door for someone else to take the job from him.
Abandoning the experiment of moving Swihart to the outfield may partially be due to Andrew Benintendi‘s emergence taking away a potential starting spot, while moving back to the catcher position also boosts his trade value. Fairly or not, the decision will also be viewed as the Red Sox lacking confidence in Leon’s long-term viability as the starting catcher.
Leon’s outstanding performance last year earned him the opportunity to open this season as the starting catcher. The Red Sox may have caught lighting in a bottle last year, but Leon will at least get the chance to prove that he can sustain some semblance of that production.
His bat probably won’t catch fire the way it did last summer, but hitting .270 with 30 doubles, 15 homers an OPS above .750 seems like a reasonable projection. Combine that with his solid defense and you have a player that should be worth about at least 2.5 WAR, which easily puts him in the conversation for the top 10 catchers in baseball.