BOSTON -- Between Boston and Triple-A Pawtucket, the Red Sox’s Christian Vazquez played in 121 games last season, 106 of them behind the plate. That’s a full load for any catcher, and more games than he’d ever played in a single season. He was entitled to take the winter off.
Instead, Vazquez elected to play winter ball in his native Puerto Rico, appearing in 33 more games for the San Juan Senators in the Liga de Beisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente, named after that island’s greatest star. Sure, it was extra work, and meant a few more bucks, but mostly it was a labor of love.
“I like to play,” Vazquez said at the recent Red Sox winter convention at Foxwoods Casino. “I like to play in front of my people in Puerto Rico, in front of my dad. He likes to see me play. It’s an honor to play there in my town. I love it. I play for this.”
Rafael Vazquez was an accountant. He’s retired now, and his son, whose middle name is Rafael, wants to give his father as many chances to see him as he can.
“He loves baseball like me,” Vazquez said. “He’s a great father, I love him. I’m going to play in Puerto Rico a long time when he’s alive.”
If he hasn’t already, Rafael Vazquez may want to invest in a satellite dish and find a good travel agent. His son enters Red Sox camp as the team’s No. 1 catcher, ahead of new addition Ryan Hanigan, and based on his play last season, it will be hard for anybody to take the job away from him. That includes Blake Swihart, the switch-hitting catcher rated by ESPN.com’s Keith Law as the team’s top prospect, 10th overall in the top 100 rankings released Thursday.
Swihart has earned across-the-board raves for his play as he’s risen through the Sox system, ending last season in Pawtucket, where he figures to open the ’15 season as the PawSox everyday catcher. But so did the 5-foot-9, 200-pound Vazquez, who gave a preview of coming attractions with his powerful arm in camp last spring.
Last season, Vazquez took over the bulk of the team’s catching duties after A.J. Pierzynski was released and set a club record by throwing out 51.7 percent of the runners attempting to steal against him (15 of 29). That was the highest caught-stealing rate ever by a Sox catcher who played 15 or more games in a season, and a record for a big-league rookie appearing in 50 or more games.
The island that has produced catchers the way the Dominican Republic has spawned shortstops -- Puerto Rico can claim Benito Santiago, Sandy Alomar, Ivan Rodriguez, the three Molina brothers (Jose, Bengie and Yadier), Jorge Posada, Javy Lopez, Ozzie Virgil and Ellie Rodriguez, among others -- appears to have a worthy inheritor of that tradition in the Bayamon-born Vazquez.
Yadier Molina ranks as the gold standard defensively among this generation’s big-league catchers. He has won Gold Gloves in each of the last seven seasons and has a career caught-stealing rate of 45 percent. It is a testament to Vazquez’s skill set that major league evaluators -- and Yadier’s former teammate in St. Louis, Joe Kelly -- are unafraid to compare him to Molina.
“Mini Yadi,” Kelly said last weekend. “That’s his nickname. I call him that. He literally works with the Molina brothers in the offseason. They’re [all] from Puerto Rico and growing up, he idolized those guys. He called me this offseason and said, ‘Man, I just got done working with Yadi.’ He works with him every offseason. He works with Jose. He works with Bengie. He works with all of them. His behind-the-plate skills are awesome. Definitely a mini Yadi.
“They catch, they set up, they -- I wouldn’t say they think the same, but he’s getting there about reading hitters and stuff. He definitely has similar tendencies. And he’s just the right mix of cockiness and confidence behind the plate that he’s perfect for catching. He prides himself on defense and he almost tries to tempt runners to go. He likes to back pick like Yadi, one knee, call a fastball inside, miss inside, back pick -- stuff that Yadi does all the time.”
A “back pick” is when a catcher throws behind a runner attempting to pick him off base. Vazquez picked off four runners last season, most by a Sox catcher since Rich Gedman picked off five in 1985.
Steven Wright, the 30-year-old knuckleballer who pitched to Vazquez in Pawtucket last season, offered another example of how advanced Vazquez is behind the plate.
“He was probably the first catcher that I’ve ever thrown to that was excited to catch me,” said Wright, alluding to the typical aversion a catcher has for a knuckleballer. “I remember the first time, I threw a bullpen in 2013 spring training. One time, that was it.
“The first game I threw to Christian [last spring], he was on the left-field line before I was out there because he was so excited about catching. He did a great job. I love throwing to Christian because I don’t like to shake off. For me, he calls the slow ones, he calls the hard ones, he calls fastballs. He does stuff where I’m standing on the mound and he’s thinking like, ‘What would I not look for right now.’
“We’re throwing fastballs inside that I’ve never done. The fact that he’s able to think out of the box, because catching a knuckleballer and calling a game for a knuckleballer is completely different than any other person ... just gives me more confidence to where all I have to do is concentrate on executing the pitch.
“He’s definitely advanced beyond his years. It’s just exciting to see that he’s still got a lot of room to grow as far as calling the game. The grind of a catcher is tough and that’s why a lot of guys can’t do it for a long period of time. But I feel like he has a really good opportunity of being that guy.”
The only real question about Vazquez concerns his bat. He batted .240 with a .617 OPS last season, with a drastic home-road split (.286 at Fenway, .210 on the road). But he plays a position where the major-league batting average was .245, the OPS .687, and where teams place a greater premium on defense than offense. It is at the plate that the 22-year-old Swihart is given the biggest edge over Vazquez, and Swihart’s defense is given a plus grade as well.
Vazquez is not looking over his shoulder, at least not yet. He projects a self-assurance that suggests he expects to be playing for the Sox -- and father Rafael -- for years to come. He already is thinking in terms of becoming of a leader.
“Of course, that’s important,” he said. “Get the trust of your pitchers. That’s the main thing. Like [Jason] Varitek was the captain of the team. It’s important to be a leader on the field.”