Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Blake Swihart.
The Question: Can Blake Swihart get the team back on his side?
Blake Swihart is something of a sensitive subject for most Red Sox fans, and for good reason. This was the team’s top prospect not all too long ago, and represents the rare opportunity for an athletic catcher who can also be an above-average hitter. At the peak of his prospect days, he even drew some comparisons to Buster Posey. Comparing him to the best catcher of a generation is almost certainly ridiculous and unfair, but it shows just how highly many scouts thought of him. The talent is surely there. Unfortunately, he fell out of the team’s circle of trust in 2016.
Like Swihart himself, the way he was handled a year ago is also a source of pain for a certain sect of Red Sox fans. Again, this is for good reason. Last season started with Swihart as the team’s starting catcher, and was supposed to be the year he started to make good on his potential. However, he had some early (and, honestly, mostly minor) problems defensively behind the plate, and the team quickly sent him down to Pawtucket. Not only that, but they slowly began to groom him elsewhere, specifically left field. It was an odd decision, since so much of Swihart’s potential value was tied to him being behind the plate. Either way, after just a couple of weeks the young catcher had turned into an everyday outfielder. There was one silver lining — Sandy Leon’s magical run through the summer — but overall it was a weird decision that doesn’t make sense in hindsight and didn’t make sense in regular sight.
Now, as we look ahead to 2017, he’s being transitioned back to his normal spot behind the plate. The odd left field experiment is mercifully over. There is some work to do, and the dirty little secret is there was some validity to the team’s concern with him behind the plate last year even if it didn’t justify the route they took. He’s spending this spring becoming reacquainted to the position, and the entirety of this season will be all about regaining his trust in the organization that he is the future everyday catcher for this franchise.
The one thing that is clear about the Red Sox and their relationship with the catching position is that defense matters. They’re very clearly enamored with Christian Vazquez, which is totally justified when you see how he handles himself behind the plate. It’s an important position, and Boston doesn’t want to put a subpar backstop there even if he’s a superior hitter. So, how does Swihart rate defensively, by the metrics? By the most important measure, pitch framing, he’s been a mixed bag. According to Baseball Prospectus, he was outstanding in this area back in 2014 at Double-A Portland. However, he took a big step back into negative value the following year at the major-league level. He was around average last year, although it obviously came in a smaller sample. This suggests there’s work to be done to succeed with more advanced pitching, but the talent is there. As far as blocking pitches and controlling base runners, Swihart is worse than average but won’t kill the team in these areas.
Like I said, there is still work to be done, but that’s to be expected. It’s easy to forget now, but while Swihart was drafted as a catcher he didn’t really have much experience there. He spent most of his high school career in the infield, so he’s even further behind at one of the most difficult positions to learn. This makes how they handled him in 2016 even weirder, but it also adds a little more confidence that there is a legitimate opportunity for him to grow in 2017 and beyond.
Unfortunately, last year’s outfield experiment could hinder that growth. Catching is just so different from every position on the diamond and takes different mentality and mechanics. Hell, we’ve already seen him suffer through those throwing yips early this spring. That issue has passed, but it served as a reminder that shifting him to a different position — even if for just a partial season — has consequences.
All of that being said, it is reasonable for Red Sox fans to keep their high expectations for Swihart. I’ve talked about the defense, but it’s worth mentioning the offensive potential as well. If he lives up to his potential, we’re talking about a catcher with an above-average hit tool and average-or-better power. At the worst offensive position in baseball, that has some serious value.
The bat has never been the question with Swihart, though. If he’s going to carve out a role for himself in Boston, he’ll have to prove it defensively. As we saw last year, the standards are almost impossibly high. Still, he has the potential to become at least average behind the plate, just with a little more seasoning. He’ll get that by almost certainly starting the year in Pawtucket since he’s the only catcher with minor-league options. Eventually, though, he’ll get his chance. He’ll need to show some improvement if he’s going to get back on Boston’s good side.