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May 15, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Christian Vazquez’s new focus at the plate starting to pay off

NEW BRITAIN, Conn. — On a soggy Friday night, with the Portland Sea Dogs and New Britain Rock Cats (MIN) in the midst of the second half of a doubleheader, New Britain designated hitter Josmil Pinto strayed a little too far from second base for Christian Vazquez’s liking.

So Portland’s catcher took the opportunity to show everyone just how good his arm is — again — with a snap throw that beat Pinto back to the bag. Although the throw was not perfect this time, pulling shortstop Xander Bogaerts to the right and allowing Pinto to slide safely back in, it did show the level of trust Vazquez has in his arm and in his teammates to take that chance. 

It is trust like that, hitting coach Rich Gedman said, that he needs to learn at the plate.

“There’s something to be said for not being afraid to make a mistake, because that tells me you trust yourself and you trust the people you’re playing with,” Gedman said Saturday. “You add some adrenaline to a situation, and everyone wants to do it. Who’s the coolest head? That’s the one that’s going to prevail usually. Trust in your ability.” 

By now, most Red Sox fans have been introduced to Vazquez because of his defense. He earned high marks in spring training, his first with the big league team, from media, fans and the Red Sox organization alike for his otherworldly pop times and defensive instincts. 

Vazquez said that when the team sent him to minor league camp at the beginning of March, Director of Player Development Ben Crockett gave him clear direction: work on offense. 

The 22-year-old 2008 draft pick has done just that with Portland, and about a month and a half into the season, he feels good about the progress he has made. 

“I feel better, very good,” Vazquez said. “We’re working on [offense] every day with Geddy — good at-bats, long at-bats, good swings.” 

The 5-foot-9, 195-pound catcher is hitting just .240/.376/.373. The numbers do not necessarily jump off the page, but consider that he has hit .295/.419/.459 since an 0 for 11 start to the year in his first four games. 

Perhaps a better indicator of his improved approach is his increasing walk rate. He has improved that mark in each of the past four seasons: 7.7-percent in 2010, to 9.7-percent in 2011, to 11.4-percent in 2012, and up to 17.0-percent this year, putting him in a tie for second in the Red Sox system. 

That has corresponded with a similar drop in his strikeout rate over that period, from 20.7-percent in 2010 down to 13.8-percent this season. The numbers evince that he is better controlling his at-bats. 

Count Gedman among those who have noticed the improvement. 

“One of the things he’s paid attention to … is his discipline at the plate,” Gedman said. “I don’t know if it’s a conscious effort, but it sure looks like it. He’s taking more pitches than I’ve ever seen him take, and monitoring pitches, looking more for his pitch, something he can handle. Ahead of the count, he starts hunting his pitch a little more. 

“That’s what he’s trying to establish in his own mind: what the strike zone is, a consistent daily approach in the cage.” 

It has indeed been a conscious effort for Vazquez, who said he is trying to not get ahead of the ball so much, instead waiting it out and working the count. 

If he has a consistent plate approach, the hits will come. 

“That’s the important thing,” Vazquez said. “Try not to get a hit [necessarily, but] get good at bats.” 

Gedman said part of that has been Vazquez doing a better job of staying even-keeled. A lot of players get uptight or try to do too much during a tense situation, but not Vazquez. 

Take Saturday against New Britain, for instance. Portland held a narrow 2-1 lead when Vazquez stepped to the plate with two on and two out against one of the Twins’ top pitching prospects, right-hander Alex Meyer. Meyer’s fastball sat at 95-97 mph all night, but Vazquez ripped one of them through the left side to plate a pair, giving Portland a 4-1 lead at the time. 

“It feels great,” Vazquez said, unable to hold back a smile. “He’s a great pitcher. To hit off of him, it’s a lot of fun.” 

The catcher credits a lot of his improvement to Gedman — or “Grandpa,” as Vazquez endearingly calls him — calling it “an honor” work with the 13-year major league veteran.

The two seem to be a good fit. According to the numbers, Gedman was a similar player with the Red Sox, Astros and Cardinals in the 1980s and 90s to what Vazquez may project to be. 

Gedman had a career .252 average and .399 slugging percentage, very close to Vazquez’ .252 and .393 marks in the minors. Gedman threw out one in every three would-be basestealers, including three seasons in the mid-80s when he cut down 41, 43 and 50-percent. Vazquez is at 36-percent for his career, 47-percent this season.

Despite the stats, Gedman downplayed the idea that they are alike.

“We’re not similar: He’s much better than I was,” Gedman said, “and I can only hope that he’ll have a great career. 

“People ask, what’s his ceiling? What’s he going to be? He has a chance to be a very good big league player,” Gedman continued. “And I wish I had the answers as to how good he’s going to be. We don’t know that yet. And I’m sure he doesn’t either. That’s up to him and how quick he’s going to learn, how fast the learning curve is for him. But he can do some things a lot of guys can’t.” 

Photo Credit: Christian Vazquez by Kelly O'Connor. 

Tim Healey is a staff writer for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @timbhealey.