Last week, I wrote that John Farrell was doing the best he can with the resources at his disposal. This week, Dave Dombrowski made fans incredulous when he sent starting catcher Blake Swihart to Pawtucket and recalled defensive whiz Christian Vazquez to take his place. For all Swihart’s offensive reality and potential, Vazquez’s skill behind the dish seems to dovetail nicely with the need of a Sox team that features an underperforming and quirky starting rotation.
When I saw the move flash across my Twitter feed, I didn’t even flinch, because to put it kindly, Swihart had not acquitted himself well behind the plate in the season’s early going. He has dropped popups, flailed at the knuckleball, and made questionable pitch calls, and despite his sneaky good slash line in a tiny sample (I’ll take a .391 OBP from anyone on the team, let alone the catcher), it seemed pretty obvious that he was a defensive liability, albeit an almost painfully handsome one.
But sometimes there’s more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good looking, and now Swihart’s going to find out what that’s like. I’m not thrilled with Dombrowski’s off-the-cuff admission that Swihart will be getting some playing time in left field, but I also don’t expect Dombo to be able to clean up the Sox’ roster mess in a way that doesn’t temporarily devalue someone’s talents. I am sympathetic to the argument that if Swihart was going to learn left field it might have been a good thing to try in spring training, but I’m just as sympathetic to the implicit counterpoint that this is what the minor leagues are for.
I also believe that the caterwauling over the Swihart Affair conflates what is good for Swihart and what is good for the Red Sox to an uncomfortable and inexplicable degree. What is good for Swihart might actually be some time in the minors to work on his defense -- maybe it's not The Best option for him, but for a Red Sox team trying to win, it's the best option for both parties. And, as BP Boston's Ben Carsley wrote about Swihart in this year's Baseball Prospectus annual, it's important to remember how development can actually work:
Prospect development isn't linear, and that's doubly true for catchers, yet Swihart has made steady, measured progress at every stop since being drafted in the first round in 2011.
While Carsley meant that Swihart's development had been linear to this point, Swihart's recent woes seem like a clear literal manifestation of just how non-linear prospect curves are, and on a team with three potential backstops, someone was gonna gets screwed. Maybe this demotion will stunt Swihart’s development, but maybe it's just part of his development. Given that they replaced him with someone a hair older than him, it’s less clear to me how it will hurt the Red Sox.
My thinking dovetails with that of FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan, albeit in another playing dispute, this one a prehistoric three weeks ago:
You keep Sandoval the starter if you're trying to get the most out of Pablo Sandoval. You give Shaw an opportunity if you're trying to get the most out of the Red Sox. Seems like an easy call.
Note that Sullivan only says Shaw merely earned an opportunity -- not that this was a necessarily a final referendum on the Panda's Red Sox career, just as it's not a referendum on Swihart as Sox catcher, even if he's trying out left field. Given the hubbub over Swihart's horrendous pitch call to Mark Trumbo with Buchholz on the mound, with Buch saying "I put the ball where I wanted to," it would seem strange to suggest Vazquez couldn't have a positive effect on more than just Rick Porcello. What could he do for Buchholz, Kelly, Wright, and the rest? My answer is and was that I don’t friggin’ know, but on a team that has no problem scoring runs, it’s probably worth it to find out. It wasn’t for nothing that Carsley wrote this about Vazquez in the BP Annual:
Vazquez showed great promise as a pitch-framer and game-caller in his rookie campaign, so even if his arm doesn't come all the way back, he's in for a long career. Any lingering TJ effects would be a damn shame, though, because he had the Molina Starter Kit in his toolbag before he went under the knife.
Which brings me to the strangest overlooked possibility: that Vazquez himself might just improve by playing every day, to the point that he brings good enough offense to easily justify sticking around. Just as Carsley wrote that Swihart showed the pronounced non-linear development of catching prospects, so might Vazquez. He only has the time to develop his bat at the major league level, as Yadier Molina did in St. Louis, if we let him. The Sox are giving him that chance while putting a floor under a team that was dropping games at roughly the same rate as Swihart was dropping balls -- not terribly often, but enough to make you cringe.
In the end, as life so often does, the answers to life come not actually from me or you or numbers or philosophy but, of course, Office Space. Ask ourselves "Is this good for the company?" and the answer is: I mean, almost certainly? This is a here-and-now tweak for a team that probably needed it. I like Swihart and hope he has a long Boston career, but if the Sox need one thing right now, it's drastic reduction of risk in its pitching game. And I like my Twitter friends, and I respect their passion for Swihart and am in awe of his spiritual hold over them. But I love it when the Red Sox win baseball games, and I'm fairly confident this minor move has gotten them a little closer to that goal, or at least no farther away.