The Blake Swihart demotion-slash-position-switch and Christian Vazquez promotion to full-time starter has not gone as its adherents, i.e. me, had planned. Vazquez is clearly an above-average defensive backstop, but he has his holes in defense, and these few holes are still more numerous than his bright spots on offense. He hit a home run off Dellin Betances, earning him an excellently salty newspaper cover, but that has been about it. Meanwhile, Swihart got hurt in left field and is out for a while. Nothing seems to have worked out.
We've spent months trying to figure out the motivations behind the initial move, and in attempting to give everyone involved credit for having everyone's best interests at heart, I think I can understand how and why this all went down. I could be wrong. But the math works, so to speak. Here's the theory, from start to finish. Events happen in order:
- Early in the season, it becomes apparent to the Red Sox that Swihart is not ready to handle the full-time catcher job. This could be for several reasons: They could think his defense wasn't good enough. The pitchers may have groused about him. Maybe they were just concerned about the bat, which was quiet, albeit with a good few walks. They clearly felt pushed into a corner, but the question, even at the time, was why now? It seemed too early. Teams make mistakes and this may have been one, but it's probably a decent bet in the long run to figure that the people pulling the strings have some idea what they're doing.
- The Red Sox throw Vazquez into the starting lineup and put Swihart in left field in Pawtucket. I think this is poor planning, good on-the-go decision making and a potential red herring. I think it's poor planning because as good as a problem it is to have three catchers fighting for two major league spots, it's still a problem. I think it's good problem solving because I think a) the Sox needed left field help after the rise and fall of Brock Holt, the depressing impotence of Rusney Castillo, and before the emergence of Chris Young (RIP) ,and b) it's a little much to have three catchers on the roster, but three catchers, one of whom is a left fielder? That's a different story. That's a Swiss Army Knife, not a millstone.
- This does not mean the Sox have confidence in Swihart at catcher in the long-term, nor does it preclude it. It is possible the move to left field was attractive to the Sox because of Swihart's (visible) struggles behind the plate early this season, which seems at least a tad likely. It is also possible they believe his long-term future is at catcher. I didn't think so in April, but I think so now. I don't think the move was a final judgment on his catching skills.
- If that was the case, why bother with him in left field? Doesn't he need the experience behind the plate if he is to get better? Is this the baseball version of Bart Simpson's remedial class going slower than the standard class and expecting to make up ground? This is where it gets knotty.
- From the Swihart side, it is almost certainly some mix of "we need a left fielder yesterday," "Swihart isn't as good defensively as we thought," "giving him multipositional skills justifies potentially recalling him to the major league roster" and, most critically, "we view Swihart as a long-term project." The last part is key. There was a lot of talk in April about how the move was certain to hurt his development, provided he wouldn't be actually working on catching skills in the minors, and that's correct. My theory is: yes, while this may have hurt his long-term development, the risk was deemed sufficient because a) the move to left was at least partially motivated by practical concerns, and whatever real concerns the team has over his defense are proprietary information of the Boston Red Sox; and b) by screwing with his long-term development, it showed, perversely, that they believe in said long-term development all-the-same.
- This is a roundabout way of saying that I think the Red Sox are committed to Swihart. This shows the move to be an accommodation for Swihart's and Vazquez's current skill sets. Putting Swihart in left was the easiest way to play him, and you typically don't contort yourselves to give playing time to young players in whom you don't believe.
- Swihart and Vazquez are both young of course, so the age thing seems to cancel out. But what if it didn't? What if instead of looking at age, we looked at relative career age, based on their individual skill sets? Starting at the same time does not mean ending at the same time. Given their discrete skill sets, it seems likely that Vazquez is potentially further along in his MLB career than Swihart is. This is where an observation by Jake Devereaux on the most recent edition of Baseball Prospectus Boston's Red Seat podcast, one about catcher defense, comes into play.
- Jake said that catcher defense traditionally peaks earlier than that of other positions. Through this lens, it seems possible that the Sox are playing Vazquez to maximize his present value because they don't believe he has future value; I mean, maybe he does, but he's good enough defensively to play catcher now, even if the bat is bad. And the bat is bad. But any improvement therein makes him a nice trade chit if the Sox choose to go in that direction, which seems unlikely with Swihart's injury, but that's hindsight.
- Basically I think the Sox realize that Vazquez is not the long-term solution, and facilitated this move to both make the team more manageable in the short run and, in the long run, to get rid of him. With Swihart's injury, the plan, if it existed in the first place, has been thrown into chaos. Given that the injury was a direct result of screwing with Swihart's game, the Sox are temporarily stuck with Vazquez because of their poor planning, but I ultimately think these were moves dictated by short-term and long-term Realpolitik concerns and were a referendum not on Swihart but on Vazquez. I think by trying to pass him off as a capable big-league catcher, they were trying to do so as much to bolster his trade value as they were to ‘develop' him as a player. In retrospect, for as poorly as this all worked out, I think the Sox were making moves that didn't make sense individually, but did in the big picture, and still do. Even with Swihart's injury, I'd be shocked if Vazquez is the catcher two years from now ahead of him, and I think everything has always been moving toward this point.
- Or I just hope so, and am continuing my proud tradition of being wrong on this particular subject. Either one.
Photo Credit: Adam Glanzman
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