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Blake Swihart's tale of two halves

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Blake Swihart's 2015 consisted of two completely different half-seasons. What made the difference for him in the latter portion of the season?

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While the Red Sox have added a couple of big-name veterans to their roster this winter, namely David Price and Craig Kimbrel, many fans still see this as a squad built around young, exciting talent. As far as that young and exciting talent goes, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Eduardo Rodriguez tend to steal most of the headlines.

It’s for good reason, of course, as each piece of that trio showed considerable flashes of greatness during the 2015 season. An unintended consequence of this love, however, is that other players get somewhat overshadowed. Among them is Blake Swihart, who people still realize is good, of course, but he doesn’t get the same love as some of the others in the organization. It makes sense, as first impressions are everything and Swihart’s wasn’t great.

Overall, it was a very strange season for the young backstop. A quick look at his final line doesn’t really jump off the page. He was slightly below average across the board in his first professional season, which is a result you’d expect from a player of his age. However, he was never really at that level in 2015, instead spending half the year well below average, and finishing up the campaign solidly above.

The start to Swihart’s season — while wholly uninspiring — is not the least bit surprising. Heading into spring training, the plan was for their top prospect to spend the majority of the season in Triple-A, coming up sometime around the All-Star break at the earliest if he showed the proper development. Instead, the team’s catching depth was decimated just weeks into the season, and Swihart was called upon way ahead of schedule. The rushed timeline certainly shone through in his performance. Before the All-Star break, the 23-year-old hit just .241/.279/.323 and generally looked lost at the plate. Afterwards, however, he looked like a different batter, hitting .303/.353/.452.

This is the part of the program where I acknowledge the flaws of using arbitrary endpoints, but I go ahead and continue doing it anyway. Splits are just easier to find when broken into pre-All-Star game and post-All-Star game. Luckily for us, that splits Swihart’s season almost perfectly in half, as he accrued 141 plate appearances before the break and 168 plate appearances after it. It’s not perfect, but it’s close enough and it makes it a lot easier to find discernible differences in his game. What made second-half Swihart such a better hitter than first-half Swihart?

The first thing I looked for was a change in his peripheral numbers. He did strikeout less, but it was not a significant change, dropping by only a percentage point and still sitting at roughly 25 percent. The increase in walk rate was more significant — jumping from five percent to 6.5 percent — but it was still safely below average. Drawing walks was never a huge part of his game coming up through the minors, and it doesn’t figure to be one in the majors. The biggest and most important change for Swihart in the second half was his big jump in power. The young catcher watched his Isolated Power jump from a measly .083 in the first half to a respectable .148 in the second. For context, that’s a jump from roughly Dee Gordon’s power level to Brett Lawrie’s. Swihart will never be a big-time power bat, but if he can settle his ISO somewhere in the .150 range, it’ll be a huge boost for his value.

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Looking a little closer at his half-season splits, it’s clear that he benefited a bit from good luck in the second half as well. After the All-Star break, Swihart put up a batting average on balls in play of .391, a mark that’s nearly impossible to reach without a few breaks in the batter’s favor. Of course, we know that BABIP isn’t all luck, and some of this had to do with much better quality of contact. I wrote about Swihart’s second-half surge back in September, and one of the things I noted was an improved approach that would lead to better contact, and it certainly held true. He started laying off pitches out of the zone, and getting more aggressive on pitches in the zone.

It’s hard to track quality of contact, especially in these types of samples, but two of my favorite numbers to check to test this are home-run-to-fly-ball ratio and infield fly ball rate. These are far from perfect, but if many of your fly balls are leaving the yard, and you’re rarely popping balls up to infielders, chances are you’re hitting the ball relatively well. Swihart’s improvements in these areas after the All-Star break jump off the page. After just over four percent of his fly balls went for home runs in the first half, that rate jumped to just shy of twelve percent in the second half. On top of that, a startling 21 percent of his fly balls were infield pop ups prior to the break, as opposed to just six percent in the second half. Small sample size is surely an issue here, but it’s clear Swihart made better contact down the stretch.

The final thing I noticed was that he became a much more well-rounded hitter in the second half. When he first came up, he was a very pull-happy batter, taking 46 percent of his pitches to the pull-side, per Fangraphs. However, his distribution became much more even after the break. In fact, he shifted to hitting most of his balls up the middle, another sign that he had righted his timing and was making better contact. This spray chart gif showing the difference in his half-seasons gives a better visual representation of these changes.

There are a lot of possible outcomes for the 2016 Red Sox lineup, and which Swihart shows up is a big part of it. While his defense is still a work in progress and a focus for him moving forward, continuing to do what he did in the second half of 2015 is important as well. Pitchers are going to make adjustments after advanced scouts have an entire winter to put together scouting reports, and it’s up to him to keep the changed approach. If he can continue to make the kind of contact he did down the stretch, Swihart could be a big reason why the Red Sox get back into the playoff picture in 2016.