The Red Sox never planned to give Blake Swihart his major league debut on May 2. If things had gone as intended, he would have spent much of 2015 developing in Pawtucket before earning a late-summer call-up to get his feet wet in Boston.
Instead, injuries to both Christian Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan within the season's first month forced the club's hand. Swihart made his Red Sox debut despite having fewer than 40 games of Triple-A experience under his belt, and unsurprisingly, he struggled to begin his MLB career. A month after his call-up, Swihart was batting just .216/.247/.257 with three extra-base hits in 78 plate appearances.
Nevertheless, the lumps Swihart took in the first half of 2015 ended up being a blessing in disguise for the Red Sox and their young catcher. The 23-year-old proved a quick study and during the season's final four months, he hit .294/.343/.439 with 20 extra-base hits over 231 plate appearances.
By the end of the year, Swihart was producing at a league-average level with the bat. Given his youth and inexperience, the progress he showed enabled fans to imagine Swihart becoming just the type of impact performer that scouts and prospect writers projected him to be down in the minors.
Yet there remain some rough edges around his game. Despite all the growth he showed at the plate, Swihart still has plenty of work to do defensively. Unlike many other young catchers (such as Vazquez, for instance), Swihart's glove appears to be trailing his bat in terms of development.
Perhaps the biggest issue the youngster struggled with during his rookie campaign was keeping pitches in the dirt in front of him. Over 83 games, Swihart was charged with 16 passed balls, a mark that ranked second-highest among all MLB catchers. The one backstop ahead of him, Russell Martin with 19, played 34 more games, meaning Swihart was on pace to lead the league in passed balls by quite some margin.
That Swihart was also behind the dish for 43 wild pitches (sixth-highest in baseball) leads to further uncertainty about his ability to block balls in the dirt. While wild pitches are technically the pitcher's fault, good fielding catchers excel at bailing their battery mates out by keeping the ball in front of them.
Swihart received subpar marks in terms of pitch framing as well, something Vazquez also excels at. According to StatCorner, Swihart ranked below average in RAA (runs above average) among MLB catchers in 2015. Baseball Prospectus also rated Swihart's framing ability as mediocre, placing him 83rd out of 109 catchers this past season in runs added per count with framing.
In comparison, back in 2014, Vazquez performed far better in both categories, ranking ninth overall among baseball's backstops, according to StatCorner and BP. (Hanigan also rated as above average, though his framing numbers weren't quite so stellar as Vasquez's.)
None of this is to suggest that Swihart's fielding cost the Red Sox as dearly as, say, Hanley Ramirez's defense did in 2015. Nor should these numbers necessarily sour any hopeful views regarding the young backstop's future.
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These stats do demonstrate that Swihart still has room to develop further despite an impressive rookie season. That he was able to make such noticeable strides at the plate should provide encouragement for his ability to make continued adjustments. By all accounts, Swihart worked hard to improve his defense down in the minors, which helped him transform from an athletic but raw high schooler into one of the game's best catching prospects.
Given all the duties catchers are tasked with in the majors, it shouldn't come as much surprise that Swihart still has progress to make at the age of 23. With his track record, one would expect him to improve in the field in 2016.
A bigger uncertainty is just how Boston's catching situation will shake out next year. Swihart and Hanigan formed a reliable pair for the Red Sox behind the dish by season's end, but Vazquez is expected to be fully healthy once spring training rolls around.
Three dependable catchers on the roster is a good luxury to have (especially if the injury bug strikes again), but either Vazquez or Swihart look destined to begin the season in Triple-A as a result. Considering he missed a year of development time and his bat remains somewhat of a question mark, Vazquez appears to be the likelier candidate to spend some time in Pawtucket.
As for Swihart, he'll surely benefit from his initial experiences against big league competition this past season. If he can carry his performances at the plate into 2016, the Red Sox will have themselves a valuable, young catcher.
How much Swihart can improve with the glove in the years to come is a bigger question.