Or How Sandy Leon Might Pull a “Doug Mirabelli”
Back in the early days of the internet, when YouTube did not exist and everyone had an internet friend named “Tom,” Red Sox fans were gifted a chance to peer into the supposed day of a Red Sox backup catcher. This “day in the life” tale did not include anything as mundane as a “morning workout.” Nor were there daily cleanses, stretches, or anything resembling smart PR soundbites. In fact, this almost minute-by-minute recounting of an apocryphal Boston Red Sox doubleheader was filled with grotesque (and hilarious) language, absurd statistics, and one perfect line; “Dougie is Going Deep!” Doug Mirabelli was (and is) a Red Sox folk legend. The story of the Red Sox trading for him mid-season and how a police escort was needed to get him to a game on time is simply amazing. On that day in 2006, the Red Sox needed… badly needed… the return of their backup catcher. Now, almost 13 years later, the Red Sox are in a similar situation. Back then the savior was Doug Mirabelli, today the bat-signal might go out to Sandy Leon.
While Mirabelli was the personal catcher for Tim Wakefield because of the former’s preternatural ability to catch the latter’s filthy knuckleball, Sandy Leon spent all of last season catching an equally difficult, yet much more dominant pitcher in Chris Sale. However, at the tail end of the this year’s Spring Training, Alex Cora and Red Sox management decided that Sandy Leon’s putrid hitting performances were enough to place him on waivers (he passed waivers and is now in Pawtucket). The Red Sox assumed that any pitcher as good as Chris Sale would have no problem adjusting to a new battery mate. They were wrong.
The relationship between a pitcher and catcher is a unique thing. Some pitchers can roll with any guy that straps on the pads and hops behind the plate, but others seem to need a specific guy back there. Wakefield needed somebody who could simply catch his primary pitch. Sale, who features an A+ fastball, A+ Slider, and A level changeup, requires somebody that knows when to choose each of the three pitches, and in what locations. Sandy Leon is that guy. Sale never shakes off Leon. He trusts implicitly in his backstop. The lanky lefty knows his catcher has done all the homework so all Sale has to think about is where to throw the ball. This year though, because Leon finds himself playing in Triple-A to start the 2019 season, Sale has partnered with Christian Vasquez… and the results have been underwhelming.
The main (and correct) question regarding Sale is, “what has happened to his velocity?” Not only is the velocity concerningly down, but, according to the man himself, he does not know if he “has ever pitched like this in (his) life.” He claims he is fine. He even sandwiched a decent start around his two atrocious outings. Most people will tell you Sale’s problems have nothing to do with Sandy Leon and Christian Vasquez. They will say the velocity is the main issue. They are probably empirically correct. But again, baseball is a funny sport where most of the main battles are won between the ears. Sale feels fine, but cannot find the giddy-up to any of his pitches. So what gives?
Maybe Sale sucking has nothing to do with Sandy Leon not being behind the dish. Or maybe it has everything to do with his absence. At this point of the season, and after handing out a massive contract extension, the Red Sox are in a bind. Do they make a (maybe) panic move now and promote Sandy Leon from Pawtucket or do they roll the dice and hope their No. 1 starter gets his groove back? The real question is, “how in the hell do you fix Chris Sale?”
The answer might lie in understanding what makes a great catcher different from a good one. The best catchers are not the guys with the best hands or best blocking abilities (although those qualities certainly help). No. The best catchers are multi-faceted: they have great arms, clean up behind the plate like a Hoover vacuum, and have an innate ability to make pitches appear ever-so-slightly better than they actually are. However, the most important quality of a great catcher is that of an odd looking therapist.
Teams like the Arizona Diamondbacks are well aware of this. That is the reason they took a look at a lifetime .198 hitter before the season and hastily signed him to a contract. Nobody that ever looked at Jeff Mathis’ stats would ever think of him worthy of a contract in 2019. Yet the Diamondbacks did. They did so because he makes pitchers better. Even if he might retire as the worst hitter in baseball history (although Chris Davis is trying to claim that title as well). In this day and age of advanced statistics and everything going under a microscope, there is still one position (catcher) and one relationship (that of battery mates) that still baffles those who want to quantify it.
Sure. This article could be laughable in two weeks. Chris Sale might fix all of his problems. There is a more than solid chance Christian Vaquez can handle Sale fine in the future. But as of right now, Sandy Leon might be the salve to Sale’s, and the Red Sox’s, wounds. If he is, there is one silver lining for the Red Sox; they will not need to trade for Sandy Leon like they did for Mirabelli, nope, they can merely call him up. And if they do, here is to hoping he storms into the clubhouse, tells Cora to bat him cleanup and screams, “Sandy is Going Deep Tonight!“