ST. LOUIS — Near the end of the 2014 season, a few weeks after he was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Boston Red Sox, right-hander Joe Kelly came up with a nickname for his new favorite catcher.
“Mini Yadi,” Kelly said then. “I call him that.”
Three years later, the sentiment still applies to Christian Vazquez, even though the moniker hasn’t caught on for general consumption. Even after Tommy John elbow surgery erased Vazquez’s 2015 season and slowed his projected maturation into the second coming of Cardinals star Yadier Molina, Vazquez, 26, continues to draw rave reviews from pitchers who adore throwing to him.
To Vazquez, there is no compliment higher than being mentioned in the same breath as Molina, the gold standard for defensive excellence behind the plate for nearly a decade and the most accomplished active backstop from Puerto Rico, a hotbed for catchers.
Remember when the Dominican Republic was known for churning out shortstops? Well, Puerto Rico has been a cradle of catching talent for 30 years. Other Latin American countries have spawned their share of solid backstops, but consider the roster of All-Star catchers who hail from Puerto Rico: Ellie Rodriguez, Ozzie Virgil Jr., Benito Santiago, Sandy Alomar Jr., Javy Lopez, Jorge Posada, the Molina brothers (Bengie, Jose and Yadier), Geovany Soto and, of course, newly elected Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez.
“We see them like idols,” said Vazquez, who hails from Bayamon. “Growing up, you want to be like them. Those guys were very good, man. They give a good reputation to being a catcher, so the kids want to be there too.”
There’s a brotherhood, literal and figurative, among catchers from the island. The Molinas are the only sibling trio to catch in the majors, and each brother has won two World Series rings to boot. They also lend their expertise and advice to young catchers who come along.
For years, Vazquez and Jose Molina worked out together in the offseason in Puerto Rico. Yadier Molina would join them from time to time, and even now, after he relocated to Jupiter, Florida, in the winter, Yadi routinely keeps tabs on Vazquez through text messages.
When Vazquez was recovering from elbow surgery, he said he received frequent encouragement from Jose and Yadi.
“They texted me a lot during my rehab: ‘How are we doing? How do you feel?'” Vazquez said. “It was very good to know those guys were thinking about me. It kept me going.”
Like the Molinas’ father, Benjamin Sr., Christian’s father, Rafael Vazquez, was a catcher in the amateur leagues in Puerto Rico. He nurtured young Christian’s interest in playing the position by handing down his equipment, from the mask and bulky mitt to the chest protector and shin guards. To the less adventurous, they are the tools of ignorance. To the Vazquez men, they formed a suit of armor.
But the father’s real selling point to his son came in the form of an instructional video featuring Rodriguez.
Rodriguez was in the midst of a 21-year career in which he caught more games than anyone in big league history (2,427), was named an All-Star 14 times and won 13 Gold Gloves. He raised the bar for the catching position, with his reflexes behind the plate and his take-charge approach to calling a game.
What’s more, Rodriguez’s rocket arm served as a speed trap on the bases. There wasn’t a runner he didn’t dare pick off with throws from his knees, nor was there a base stealer he wasn’t sure he could catch. At his peak, from 1995-2001 with the Texas Rangers, Rodriguez threw out an average of 53.9 percent of would-be base stealers, including 60 percent (35 of 58) in 2001.
With Rodriguez setting the example, it’s little wonder that a generation of young baseball players in Puerto Rico wanted to become catchers.
In 2011, after Rodriguez played his final game in the big leagues for the Washington Nationals, he went home to play a few games for Caguas in the Puerto Rican Winter League. He made a point of watching young catchers take infield practice, and Vazquez, then 20 and fresh off his first full minor league season as a catcher, caught Rodriguez’s eye with his arm strength and fearlessness.
“You could tell he watched a lot of videos of me, because I wasn’t afraid to throw the ball, either,” Rodriguez said in 2015, after Vazquez reached the big leagues. “When you’re not afraid to do that, you’re going to play the game for a long time. That’s good to see from a young catcher.”
Rodriguez complimented Vazquez on his throwing, a moment that meant everything to a young catcher struggling to find his way in the minor leagues. A few years later, they met again in Fort Myers, Florida, where Vazquez was working out after the season and Rodriguez’s son was pitching for the Minnesota Twins’ instructional league team.
The Red Sox called up Vazquez midway through the 2014 season, and he threw out 15 of 29 attempted base stealers, a 51.7 percent success rate that would make even a Molina blush. It took longer than expected, but Vazquez’s arm is back to pre-surgery form. He threw out three of the first four runners who tried to steal against him this season and was 7-for-11 entering this week’s series against the Cardinals.
Looking back, Vazquez said he believes the encouragement he received from Rodriguez helped propel him to the majors.
“Everybody wants to be like Pudge, you know?” Vazquez said. “That’s a good push, to hear from a guy like him that he thinks you’re doing a good job.”
Vazquez said he wonders whether the passion for catching will continue to grip the island’s young players. He returns home in the winter and sees kids idolizing shortstops Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros and Francisco Lindor of the Cleveland Indians. Perhaps the next generation of Puerto Rican talent in the big leagues will come at shortstop.
“Correa and Lindor, they are the stars now,” Vazquez said. “I think they don’t want to put all that [catcher’s] gear on and get hit and block the ball and go through all that. But for my age [group], for us growing up, Yadi and Pudge, Jose Molina and Posada, we wanted to be like them. That was very special to us.”