Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Ryan Hanigan, Anyone?

I have to say, Red Sox fans, that losing Christian Vazquez is depressing. He was such a talented kid behind the dish, and he had earned being the guy for the 2015 season. His elbow injury is sad. With Vaz's elite skills in pitch framing and throwing out baserunners, he was a sure-fire bet to make the Red Sox a better team, even if he hit at replacement level. 

As the starting catcher reins are handed over to Ryan Hanigan, I'm left with three questions about the loss of Vazquez and the arrival of Hanigan as the everyday guy Red Sox Nation will watch behind the dish:

1. How much does an everyday catcher impact a team over a full season?
2. How does pitch framing apply to Boston's catchers?
3. Is this guy Hanigan any good?

In Ben Lindbergh's excellent AL East preview on Grantland, he writes the following about Christian Vazquez in 2015:

"...the full impact of Christian Vazquez, whose defensive DNA appears to be Molina-esque. Vazquez projects to save 28 runs thanks to pitch framing over a full season, according to Baseball Prospectus' Called Strikes Above Average (read this explanation of how they arrive at the runs saved per season numbers if you have an advanced degree in statistics or want to have a roaring headache), which puts him one run off the pace for the major league lead. He's also superb at controlling the running game: In 55 big league games last year, he led all catchers in another BP defensive stat, Basestealing Attempts Above Average. After accounting for pitchers, baserunners, and game states, Vazquez reduced base stealing attempts by 9.2 percent."

How important is it to his team if a catcher can save 28 runs per season? Well, take a look at the runs allowed by AL East teams last season:
  1. Baltimore - 593
  2. Tampa Bay - 625
  3. NY Yankees - 664
  4. Toronto - 686
  5. Boston - 715
There were a lot of reasons why Boston's runs allowed total ballooned last season, including the second-half pitching staff being an extended tryout period for young AAA assets. But heading into 2015 with a fresh start, the Red Sox were secure in having what they see as market inefficiencies in pitch framing and baserunner prevention behind the dish to chip away nearly 30 runs off that total. 

Which is all to say that Christian Vazquez was going to be a very important part of the Red Sox' 2015 plans. I'm sure his efforts in pitch framing and called strikes above average were part of the reason that Benny C stood pat in the "ace" market this offseason. The front office probably felt like they could count on Vazquez, a solid infield defense (coached by Orono's own Brian Butterfield), and a rotation of innings-eaters to compete in the AL East. Now one of those three defensive legs the Sox were planning to stand on is gone (and maybe supplanted in the Red Sox system, as Art notes here, but I like the idea of keeping both and having them compete and push each other for the next decade).

Enter Ryan Hanigan. Barring a trade, he will be the everyday catcher in Boston for at least a couple of months. To get off to a third bad start in four years would not be good for this franchise, so there is always a possibility of a trade, and not for Sandy Leon thank you very much. But Hanigan is the guy who will lead the club north and guide our new pitching staff wearing the "I'™m the Ace" and "He's the Ace" t-shirts (without a closer too).

A quick Google on Ryan Hanigan later, I found this out of an ESPN.com article from March, 2014:

"Harry Pavlidis and Dan Brooks of Baseball Prospectus published a study in early March about the value of pitch-framing. Their report found that from 2008-13, Molina earned the second-most runs in baseball (116) solely through that skill, while Hanigan saved the fifth-most (74). Molina ranked first among all catchers in terms of the most runs saved via framing per 7,000 opportunities, or roughly a season's worth of work, with 35.9, and Hanigan (23.3) finished eighth, according to the study."

Turns out the Red Sox picked up this guy Hanigan because he's pretty good at this pitch framing thing, too. I can imagine John Farrell and Juan Nieves liking the idea of Hanigan and Vazquez learning from each other and excelling at pitch framing. I'™m sure the numbers crunchers in Benny C's office loved the idea of combing two of the league's most elite pitch framers as a catching duo. Now we are left with one.

And so we hope, Red Sox Nation, that Ryan Hanigan and his 23-runs-saved-over-the course-of-a-season pace, combined with better pitchers and better infield defense (Come on X-Man! Be the guy defensively at short. Devin Merrero is a slick fielder.) will help the defensive side of the ball. Let us also hope that the Red Sox acquired enough firepower in the lineup to cover up for Hanigan's presence in the backside of it. And there's some projections that claim we will.

Ryan Hanigan will serve as a dependable backup for a while, but his presence in the lineup makes every other player's margin for error smaller. We can sustain his bat for a while, but everybody else is going to need to contribute close to or exceeding their best. 

While images of Vaz gunning runners down and picking up extra K's for Buchholz and the Gang in 2015 disappear.


  1. On Vasquez saving 28 runs and Hanigan saving 23 -- someone asked Bill James on his site about how the numbers said Jose Molina saved 44 runs with his framing in 2008. James responded that he's very skeptical about a number like that unless there's definitive evidence. But if 715 runs is easily the best in the division, then Hanigan might not need to save that many to have a big impact defensively. Then again, I think Buchholz will need all the help and sunscreen he can get.

  2. You said it well in the opening paragraph it is sad, as a red sox fan, that we won't get to watch a talented young player all season. It is a bit depressing. But injuries do happen and the team has to move on just like the fans do. Anyway, if the team isn't good enough to overcome this one injury than they weren't good enough or deep enough to begin with.