PAWTUCKET – Hear Matt Barnes talk about recently-arrived catcher Christian Vazquez and it’s clear that whoever takes the mound on a given day is in good hands.
“We’re very fortunate to have someone of his ability behind the plate. You give him a chance and he can throw almost anybody out. He’s got a bazooka for an arm,” gushed Barnes, who has been tabbed as Pawtucket’s starter for Game 4 of the Governors’ Cup first-round series against Rochester. “Since I’ve been working with him over the last couple of years, we’ve been able to learn about each other. It’s nice to go into the game knowing that there’s a game plan in place already.
“He knows what I like to do and I trust him now,” Barnes said, “but if he sees something, we’re going to go with that. It’s nice to have a relationship with a guy like that.”
The PawSox were in the market for a second catcher after Ryan Lavarnway was summoned to Boston as a September call-up. Decision makers could have opted to bring Alberto Rosario back into the fold – the 26-year-old appeared in 30 games with Pawtucket.
Instead, Vazquez was the choice following a strong season for Double-A Portland.
Lauded for his ability to limit traffic on the base paths, the 23-year-old Vazquez nabbed 47 would-be base stealers in the Eastern League this year. By comparison, Boston’s Jarrod Saltalamacchia has caught just 38 baserunners over 210 big-league games over the past two seasons.
Told about Barnes complimenting his “bazooka” right arm, Vazquez smiled.
“I like to throw long every day in order to get my arm stronger,” he said. “I run a lot and lift … all the things that are going to help me.”
Added Barnes, “As long as I’m timely to the plate and good with holding runners, the chances of someone stealing second or third against a guy like that is pretty slim. That takes the burden off my back as long as I do my job to get him the ball and give him a chance.”
Gary DiSarcina managed Vazquez during the 2009 season in Single-A Lowell. The PawSox skipper said he had to do a double take after the backstop officially joined the Class AAA ranks earlier this week.
“He was much bigger and wasn’t playing much. [In Lowell] he was the third catcher. When he did get in, he was raw,” DiSarcina recalled. “He had the arm, and from what I remember, he had the accuracy but not the arm strength.
“I think with the conditioning that he’s done and just playing, his strength has come around,” DiSarcina added. “He’s done a lot of good work.”
The same statement might as well apply to the strides Vazquez has made offensively. Last year between Portland and Single-A Salem, he batted .254 with a .344 on-base percentage in 101 innings. This season, he raised his average to .289 while notching just as many strikeouts (47) as walks (44).
As Vazquez noted, it’s not easy to put yourself at the mercy of the pitching staff while at the same time making sure you’re hitting skills don’t deteriorate to the point that you’re considered a liability.
“At the plate, my approach is simple: don’t think too much,” said Vazquez, a Puerto Rico native who was drafted by the Red Sox in the ninth round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft. “It’s a hard game. You have to be a leader in the field on top of hitting, blocking balls in the first and throwing guys out at second base. It’s hard, but you need to do those things if you want to play in the big leagues.”
The peace of mind that Barnes has whenever he’s paired up with Vazquez was matched on Thursday night in Rochester, when the Red Sox elected to have the just-promoted catcher fill the role of caretaker for Clay Buchholz.
“That was first time working with (Buchholz) and it was fun,” said Vazquez. “We talked before the game, going through the signs we would use.”
Said DiSarcina, “Christian called a good game with Clay. He made a couple of trips to the mound early in the game, but I thought he received well. He’s not shy back there. He’s assertive and aggressive.”
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03