Monday, November 21, 2016

Underrated Player of the Year: 2016

In this series, I look at one player per year from 1991-the present who came out of nowhere or had a great year that no one really noticed or expected.
Catching was supposed to be settled coming into 2016.  Blake Swihart had an impressive debut season and was supposed to be the starter.  Ryan Hanigan was supposed to be the backup.  But then, Swihart struggled and Hanigan got hurt.  They tried out Christian Vazquez, but he could not hit.  So it came down to Sandy Leon, who was a backup catcher in 2015.

Leon was on fire from the start.  He had five hits in his first five at-bats, with two doubles.  By the time the All Star Game came around, Leon was hitting .455.  Leon only had one Major League home run in parts of four seasons coming in 2016, but he blew that number out of the water.  He had never before been known as a hitter, he was always a defense-first catcher, but he had the best season of his career and a terrific season for any catcher.  Leon would eventually come back down to Earth, but he did continue to play very good defense. 

At the end of the season, Leon was hitting .310/.369/.476 with seven home runs, 35 RBIs, and 17 doubles.  He committed just one error and caught 41% of potential base-stealers.  He was fourth in double plays turned, third in caught-stealing percentage, and fifth in range factor.  All this despite the fact that he did not start the season until June.  Leon even hit a home run in the postseason, one of just three Red Sox players to do so.

Leon came into the season purely as an emergency option and was fourth on the depth chart.  He had not shown much in four previous seasons in the Majors.  But he blew away expectations in 2016.  Catchers sometimes develop late and Leon will be 28 next season.  Time will tell if this is purely a fluke season or a sign of things to come.  

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