The Good and Bad of Sandy Leon

It was a very strange year at catcher. The top of the end of season catcher rankings don’t look too unusual with Jonathan Lucroy and Buster Posey at the top, but those full-season numbers do not capture the amazing impact three catchers who become starters midseason had. Gary Sanchez’s prospect star had faded a bit in recent seasons, but that reflected defensive doubts. Most scouts agreed that Sanchez would hit if he could field his position. Willson Contreras had become the top catching prospect, and he immediately delivered on that promise with the Cubs.

Sandy Leon was completely different. Leon made his debut with the Nationals all the way back in 2012, and Wilson Ramos was not the only reason Leon never played regularly before this season. In his 235 plate appearances from 2012-15, Leon slashed an abysmal .187/.258/.225. His .223 wOBA over that period made him roughly equivalent at the plate to Mike Leake. This season, Leon was tied with Lucroy for the third-highest wOBA of .362. He was nearly identical to Contreras in both plate appearances and production.

Best 2016 wOBA, Catcher, 200+ PA
Player PA wOBA
Gary Sanchez 229 .425
Willson Contreras 283 .363
Sandy Leon 283 .362
Jonathan Lucroy 544 .362
Wilson Ramos 523 .361

Leon’s own status as a non-prospect was not the only obstacle he overcame this season. Ten months ago, the Red Sox seemed set at catcher with 23-year-old prospect Blake Swihart coming off a promising rookie season in which he produced a .321 wOBA and 25-year-old defensive wizard Christian Vazquez back healthy following Tommy John surgery. Their struggles earned Leon a chance, and Leon was too good with that opportunity for the team to take the job back from him.

In mid-August, Jeff Sullivan noted that Leon had outperformed his preseason ZiPS projection by more than any other batter with 100 plate appearances at that time. That would likely put Leon atop most analysts’ potential bust lists for 2017, and even a cursory look at Leon’s peripheral numbers back up that skepticism. Specifically, Leon’s .310/.369/.476 triple slash was propped up by a .392 BABIP.

Unlike pitchers, many batters can support BABIPs well above .300, but Leon doesn’t have one of the two main ingredients for that: speed. Leon didn’t steal a single base this season. Among hitters with at least 200 plate appearances and fewer than 10 steals in a season since 2002, Leon produced the 14th-best BABIP. Tyler Naquin and David Dahl were also in that top 15 because of this season, and Chris Colabello saw just 32 plate appearances in his next season (2016). The other 11 batters all saw their subsequent season BABIPs drop anywhere from 28 points to 127 points. On average, the 47 batters with a BABIP of .370 or better, at least 200 plate appearances, and fewer than 10 steals in a season who saw another 200 plate appearances and stole fewer than 10 bases the following season saw their BABIPs decline by 60 points, from .382 to .322.

Highest BABIP Seasons, 2002-16, 200+ PA, < 10 SB
Player Season BABIP Next Season Next BABIP Diff
Chris Colabello 2015 .411 2016
Tyler Naquin 2016 .411 2017
David Dahl 2016 .404 2017
Joey Votto 2012 .404 2013 .360 -.044
Justin Turner 2014 .404 2015 .321 -.083
Jose Hernandez 2002 .404 2003 .311 -.093
Wily Mo Pena 2006 .400 2007 .330 -.070
Josh Phelps 2002 .399 2003 .328 -.071
Miguel Sano 2015 .396 2016 .329 -.067
Reed Johnson 2011 .394 2012 .366 -.028
Chris Johnson 2013 .394 2014 .345 -.049
Scott Van Slyke 2014 .394 2015 .299 -.095
Stephen Drew 2006 .394 2007 .267 -.127
Sandy Leon 2016 .392 2017
Wilson Betemit 2011 .391 2012 .336 -.055

Drop Leon’s BABIP by 60 points, and his resulting .250 average, 7 home runs and 0 steals would look a lot like Stephen Vogt (.251, 14, and 0) over a full season. Vogt was the No. 14 catcher in the end of season rankings.

Still, I think the No. 28 ranking from Brad Johnson’s catcher rankings article is too pessimistic because, even if Leon is hit hard with regression, I think he demonstrated enough defensively to earn himself job security. Leon has been particularly impressive in his career at limiting the opposing running game. He threw out 13 of 33 attempting basestealers this season (39 percent) and picked off two other runners. Now for his career, Leon has a caught stealing rate of 42 percent, which is the best among catchers who have caught at least 1,000 innings since 2012.

Best Caught Stealing Rate, 2012-16, 1,000+ Innings
Player CS SB CS Rate
Sandy Leon 28 39 42%
Roberto Perez 34 52 40%
James McCann 49 78 39%
Yadier Molina 107 191 36%
Rene Rivera 75 148 34%

Leon has moderate power, decent plate discipline—he had an 8.1 percent walk rate and a 23.3 percent strikeout rate in 2016—he is part of the most productive offense in baseball, and he should have job security in 2017. I would take a shot on him in two-catcher and AL-only formats.

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Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt

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Both by BABIP and eye test Sandy seemed to get awfully lucky last season. Other than that 2 month BABIP fueled hot streak Leon has been uniformly atrocious offensively. Consider me skeptical that he will ever come close to approaching that level of offensive success again. He didn’t look good coming down the stretch or in the post season and I suspect that is a harbinger of what we can expect in 2017. Get well soon Swihart!