Last night, in the bottom of the 12th inning of a 0-0 game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Sandy Leon deposited a 92 mph fastball from Antonio Bastardo into the monster seats for a walk-off win. The HR was the 3rd hit of the game for Leon and his 5th hit in the 2 games this season (8 at-bats). It’s just a 2-game sample, but coupled with last year’s shocking offensive output, it makes me think that Leon might actually be a good hitter after all and a legitimate everyday catcher.
Prior to last season, Sandy Leon had 209 at-bats over 4 years and hit a whopping .187 with 1 HR and 5 doubles. He was obviously not an everyday starter and was used primarily in a defensive back-up and to spell the starting catcher with the Washington Nationals, as well as during his first year in Boston. He was seen as an insurance policy in case of injury. A depth piece that turned out to be desperately needed in 2016.
Christian Vazquez was recovering from Tommy John Surgery and began the season on the DL, so the Red Sox began the year with Ryan Hanigan and Blake Swihart as the catching tandem. Swihart was not good and ended up being optioned back to Pawtucket in mid-April to be converted to an outfielder and the Red Sox catching depth shrunk. Then on June 15th, both Hanigan and Swihart (called back up as an outfielder/emergency catcher) were hurt in a game against the Toronto Blue Jays, opening the door for Sandy Leon. He didn’t just walk through the door, he sprinted through it.
In his first 40 at-bats, Leon had 20 hits. He had 9 extra base hits over that span (8 doubles and a HR) and was having a significant impact on the team, both behind the plate and in the batters box. His hot start slowed a little, but after 55 games in the majors, Leon was still hitting .350 and had amassed 7 HRs, 7x his career HR numbers (1 previous in 4 years), 14 doubles, and 2 triples (the first, and only 2 of his career thus far). He earned the starting role and didn’t look back, but his offense slipped a bit down the stretch, understandably. He finished with a highly respectable .310 average, a +.123 from his career numbers prior.
Leon earned the starting job for 2017 despite some critics. Was 2016 an aberration? He slumped late in the season, was that him coming back to the norm of a .200 hitter? Was he durable enough to catch a full season? Many of the questions are still a long way from being answered, but it sure as hell is encouraging to see Leon start 2017 on fire and hitting in clutch situations. Last night was the perfect example: 3 hits, the last being the most clutch hit of the ball game to win it. I can’t predict the future, but it certainly looks like Leon is more than just a back-up defensive specialist for this year’s Boston Red Sox.