There aren’t going to be many stories bigger than the catching situation this year. The talk about what to do at the position has already begun, and it’s only going to get louder as the year moves along. As of now, and barring anything unforeseen in camp, Blake Swihart is going to start the year as something close to the everyday backstop. Christian Vazquez, meanwhile, will be breathing down his neck.
It’s something we’ll be hearing about all spring, and beyond. We’ll be getting constant updates on Vazquez’s status. We’ll be getting constant updates on Swihart’s progress from last year, especially behind the plate. It will all come to a head with more talk about the latter possibly changing positions, and it’s something we will all get sick of soon enough.
During all of that, Ryan Hanigan is going to be sitting the corner of the dugout crying. With all of the conversation around the catchers, one would think people wouldn’t so easily toss aside one who’s under contract for 2016 with a team option of 2017. That’s what happens when you play with two potential long-time starters as a boring career backup, I suppose. Even if Hanigan is celery while Swihart and Vazquez are passion fruit, however, the former is going to play an important role for the 2016 Red Sox and beyond.
Above all else, Hanigan’s presence simply gives Vazquez all the time he needs to recover. The young backstop, as we all know, is coming back from Tommy John surgery, a procedure that isn’t often associated with his position. It’s entirely possible the rehab process could be shorter for a catcher than it would be for a pitcher, but the Red Sox have every reason in the world to give him as much time as possible. Having a solid player like Hanigan — someone who can provide an 80-90 OPS+ with good defense — in tow makes that much easier. It goes without saying that they’d be much more inclined to rush Vazquez if someone like Sandy Leon was the only other catcher on the roster next to Swihart.
Speaking of Swihart, he also benefits in a whole bunch of ways from having Hanigan around. First and foremost, he’ll get plenty of off days. Again, if someone like Leon was the backup to start the year, Farrell would be pressured to possibly overplay Swihart. This is especially true given how important a strong start to this season appears to be. In particular, Hanigan can be something of a platoon partner.
Although Swihart was able to put up a 102 wRC+ against righties, he struggled to the tune of a 65 wRC+ versus lefties. Hanigan should give him days off against tough southpaws due to his career 114 wRC+ against them. Even if it’s not a strict platoon — catching tandems have more to worry about than simply the starting pitcher for the opponent — it’ll provide Swihart with rest and confidence.
Beyond that factor, Hanigan will be a good mentor for the young catcher. Next season is going to be his age-35 season and his tenth season in the league. All of that is to say that he has been along the block a few times. Swihart is still getting used to a league that he was thrown into earlier than most expected, and it’s a big adjustment for a 24 year old. Hanigan will be able to help out with his defensive progress as well as how he deals with the league as a whole.
Speaking of that defense, Hanigan’s will also lend a hand to the pitchers. Swihart isn’t a complete joke back there, but it’s clear that he still has work to do. While that’s understandable, it also hurts the pitchers a bit. Having Hanigan around every once in a while should help their performance. That’ll work whether that means they each catch a handful of every pitcher’s starts or they are assigned to specific batteries. Per Baseball Prospectus’ new catching metrics, Hanigan has always been a positive pitch-framer, even if he isn’t quite at the elite level he was at just a few years ago.
Over the next handful of months, there is going to be a lot of talk about the future of Boston’s catching position. Can Swihart develop enough to hold down the position? Can Vazquez recover from his injury and hit enough to play everyday? They are all valid questions and important to figure out. Meanwhile, the Red Sox also have to play out the 2016 season, and they need all the help they can get. Hanigan isn’t going to get a lot of love this year, but he should have a massive impact on various parts of the roster.