Walk into any MLB clubhouse and every pitcher will tell you the same thing.
“Throw with conviction.”
That’s the goal. Starters, relievers, it doesn’t matter. If you can pitch with conviction, you’ll have success.
Easier said than done, of course. Just ask most of the Boston Red Sox' rotation. I say “most” because I’m talking about everyone not named David Price. His career speaks for itself.
But for guys like Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, and Joe Kelly, it’s one thing to say you need to pitch with conviction. It’s another thing to go out every fifth night and actually do it. And those three starters began the season as the biggest question marks for the 2016 Red Sox.
That is, until Christian Vazquez re-entered the picture.
Vazquez was activated from the 15-day disabled list on April 15 and made his season debut later that night against Toronto. The 25-year-old catcher began the season on a minor-league rehab assignment, finishing his year-long recovery from Tommy John surgery that forced him to miss all of 2015.
In his season debut against the Blue Jays, Vazquez got the start behind the plate, hitting eighth. He went 2-for-4 with two runs scored in a 5-3 win. But it wasn’t his offense that made him the talk of the town. It was the way he called the game for Porcello, the way he framed borderline strikes, and the way he picked off Troy Tulowitzki at first base on a strike-him-out, throw-him-out, inning-ending double play.
It marked Porcello’s second win of the season in just his second start. But he looked like a different guy. He was pitching with conviction.
Some called it an overreaction to credit Vazquez for Porcello’s eight-strikeout performance in which he only allowed two hits (both home runs). But it’s not an overreaction if his presence is expected to be a difference-maker for this Red Sox pitching staff.
And for several years now, the expectations for Vazquez, inside the organization, have been as high as any prospect or young player they’ve had in recent memory.
Back in the winter leading up to the 2014 season, someone in the Red Sox organization explained to me why the team signed veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski to a one-year contract, rather than re-signing World Champion Jarrod Saltalamacchia to the multi-year deal he was looking for.
“Christian Vazquez will be ready by June,” said the source.
His timeline was somewhat off, but not by much. Vazquez was called up in July of 2014. And in the 55 games he played that year, the young catcher showed flashes of the comparisons I was told about by that same Red Sox source.
“Yadier Molina,” he said at the time.
How about that? The Red Sox were making offseason roster moves to make room for Vazquez as early as December of 2013. So how could you possibly call it an “overreaction” to praise the kid right now?
And as it turns out, Vazquez’ presence behind the plate didn’t just help Porcello once. It also helped him again on Wednesday night, as he picked up his third win of the season, striking out nine in seven innings.
Still not buying in? Then just ask Buchholz about him. In the one game he’s thrown to Vazquez, Buchholz turned in his best start of the season, throwing six-and-two-thirds shutout innings against Toronto on Marathon Monday.
What you’ve seen from Porcello and Buchholz in the last week is nothing more than confidence. And that confidence on the mound stems from the confidence that Vazquez oozes behind the plate.
Walk into the Red Sox clubhouse these days, and every pitcher will tell you the same thing: Vazquez is a difference-maker. So much so, that he’s got Porcello and Buchholz getting back to something this Red Sox team so desperately needs from them.
They’re pitching with conviction. And it’s no coincidence that Vazquez is involved.