The Red Sox have been on an incredible run over the past month, playing like we all expected them to before the season. The outfield is getting most of the publicity, with Mookie Betts playing like he has all year, Jackie Bradley suddenly hitting like prime Barry Bonds and Rusney Castillo finally looking like a major-league player. Beyond those three, pitchers like Joe Kelly and Rick Porcello have completely turned around their respective seasons, leaving people to wonder if we can expect this kind of performance in 2016, or if this is all just a mirage. One other player who has turned his season around in a big way is Blake Swihart, and his resurgence has been overshadowed a bit.
Swihart was called up at the beginning of May, and played close to every day from there until the end of June, when he went to the disabled list with a foot injury. He racked up 141 plate appearances in that time, hitting an atrocious .241/.279/.323. Of the 311 players who came to the plate at least 125 times in the first half, only 35 had a lower OPS than Swihart’s .602 mark. Of course, context always matters in baseball. The 23-year-old catcher was never supposed to be playing in the majors this early, never mind on an everyday basis. Injuries to both Christian Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan forced Boston’s hand, and Swihart indeed looked like a player who was rushed to the majors. Judging him because of that poor start to his career would’ve been unfair.
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The young catcher returned from the disabled list on July 20, and he’s been the recipient of 110 plate appearances since that time. He’s been…a little better in that time. To wit, he’s hitting .354/.413/.485 in the second half, better than all but 37 major-league players with at least 110 plate appearances since the All-Star break.
Of course, these kind of runs always give you pause, especially for a player who has never had this kind of success at the highest level before. Swihart is not immune to this. People will immediately point to his .472 batting average on balls in play in the second half. It’s fair to point out, but we’re also past the point of looking at BABIP as pure luck. Sure, he won’t keep that kind of performance up for the long-term, but you can tell by watching him that he’s making much better contact, and that’s what leads to a higher BABIP. People will also point out that one of Swihart’s bigger problems in the first half was his 25 percent strikeout rate, something that has stayed virtually constant since the All-Star break.
These would both be fair points, and go to show that Swihart still isn’t a finished product. With that being said, he’s still made huge, clear strides as a hitter in the second half. Although his strikeout rate hasn’t changed, he’s walking much more, jumping from five percent in the first half to a roughly average 7.9 percent in the second.
As you can see in the zone plots above, his approach has clearly changed a bit since coming back from the disabled list. We’ve seen Swihart lay off more balls in that span, while also being more aggressive on hittable pitches in the zone. The first part will lead to the increased walk rate mentioned above, and the aggressive part will lead to better contact, something Swihart has undeniably seen lately. According to Fangraphs’ metrics, he has knocked his ground ball rate down from above 50 percent to 39 percent. At the same time, he’s seen his line drive rate climb from about 25 percent to about 34 percent. If that’s not enough evidence, he’s also gone from hitting pop ups 20 percent of the time to just five percent of the time, a clear sign of someone who has improved at the plate.
All of this is to say that the Red Sox have a decision to make behind the plate next year. After the first half, it appeared that they’d have to stick Swihart back in Triple-A to start next year, as he didn’t look like a major-league hitter. He’s made big-time adjustments recently, however, and should have a spot locked up at this point. This means that either Vazquez or Hanigan will be off the roster to start the year. All three have intriguing cases, with Swihart’s all-around game, Hanigan’s veteran presence and rapport with the pitching staff, and Vazquez’s elite defense.
In the end, the easiest move will likely be to start Vazuqez in Pawtucket, considering he’s missed an entire season. Of course, that only delays the problem, as he’ll force his way up at some point and that could start an awkward situation if there’s no injury. They could also make a trade, and all three have their pros and cons in that scenario. The other solution that many have pointed out is to move Swihart, either to first or third base. That, frankly, makes no sense. For one thing, the reason he was such a valuable prospect was the fact that he looked like he could hit while also playing good defense behind the plate. While the defense still needs work, you can see he has the tools to be good. However, that same bat doesn’t play nearly as well at a corner infield spot, even with the resurgence we’ve seen lately. It would make much more sense to trade Swihart before using him in a corner.
Among all the huge performances lately, it’s been easy to overlook how much Swihart has been able to turn his season around. He’s making it a foregone conclusion that he’ll be one of the catchers on the roster in 2016 as long as he’s not traded. There are questions that still need to be answered, but Swihart’s adjustments in the second half make him one of the most exciting players to watch for heading towards 2016.