Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Blake Swihart.
The Question: Is Blake Swihart going to be able to contribute enough defensively to be a net positive?
We’ve talked a ton about the catchers this spring, because it is just sort of a weird situation for the Red Sox to be in right now. There is an argument to be made that catcher is the most important position on the diamond — if you believe Baseball Prospectus’ defensive metrics, there’s really no argument against it — and it may also be the hardest position at which to find reliable players. Boston has had some questions behind the plate for a few years running, now, and while they certainly can’t be completely comfortable with their current group they do have something of a surplus with three catchers they legitimately like. I entered the spring not thinking they were really going to keep all three of Christian Vazquez, Sandy Leon and Blake Swihart, but the more time goes on the stupider I look. (This is also true in general, not just in this case, to be honest.) Assuming they actually go through with this plan, it is going to leave Swihart in a very strange role.
The plan right now is for Swihart to play all over the diamond as a super utility player who can catch, which is pretty wild if he can actually pull it off. We’re going to focus most of this post on that possibility, but it’s worth taking a look at this offense for a moment first. This is where most of the excitement around Swihart lies, and it’s why he received some (absurd, if we’re being honest) comparisons to Buster Posey at the height of his prospect days. Catchers who can hit are rare, but Swihart has the tools to hit for average and draw some walks while also having the hit tool and athleticism to smack plenty of extra base hits even if he doesn’t have huge home run power. The ceiling isn’t huge relative to your average top prospect regardless of position, but it’s an incredibly intriguing skillset. He’s showing flashes of that talent early on this spring, too, and while it’s only spring training it’s also the first time we’ve seen him healthy in quite some time. So, yeah, we’re excited about the offense.
Defense is going to be a huge key for Swihart if he’s to succeed in this role too, though. Although he’ll be the third catcher on this theoretical roster, he’d certainly get some time behind the plate. Obviously, every aspect of catcher defense is important. I don’t really feel like I have to explain why it’s important that he’s good there. There’s also talk of him getting some time in the infield at every spot besides shortstop, and given the question marks around the infield the Red Sox really can’t have a black hole at any spot. He doesn’t have to be a Gold Glover, or even average, but he needs to be playable. The same goes for the outfield, though that’s less of a concern given the rest of the outfield defense and the fact that he’d hopefully get most of his time in Fenway’s small left field.
We’ll start by looking at his catcher defense, because this is the spot at which he’s had the most experience. Swihart got some time behind the plate in the majors in parts of the last three seasons, and he never really impressed there. He has the athleticism to succeed there, but he’s had trouble keeping the ball in front of him, with framing and with throwing out runners. The team even moved him away from the position in 2016 — a decision that I agree was the wrong one, though not meritless — in a move that resulted in a major injury. The good news is that, according to Baseball Prospectus’ metrics, Swihart’s framing improved at Triple-A next year. There’s no guarantee that will carry over to the majors, but it’s a positive step at the very least. The other stuff is what we should be watching for this spring when he gets starts behind the dish. Spring training features rusty pitchers working on new things, which means catchers should get plenty of chances to block balls in the dirt and prevent passed balls/wild pitches.
As for the other positions, well, I’d be lying if I gave any indication I knew what to expect from Swihart in the infield or the outfield. I could look at other catchers who have played other spots like Austin Barnes and Kyle Schwarber, but I’m not so sure that would have any bearing on what to expect from Swihart. The one thing I will say is that his athleticism has been praised throughout his professional career and he was an infielder in high school before moving behind the plate after being drafted. There are reasons for optimism, but this is another thing we cannot be sure of until we start seeing his performance with our own eyeballs. Or, at least reading about it from people we trust.
Ultimately, offense is what is going to have us excited about Swihart in 2018 and moving forward, but defense is going to be massively important for the type of player he ends up being. As exciting as his offense potential is, the ceiling isn’t of a guy that you can put anywhere in the field and not worry about the defense as long as the bat is in the lineup. Versatility will take some pressure off him at any given spot, but Swihart still needs to show in spring and early in the season that he can at least be reliable all over the diamond if he is going to prove us right for our February excitement.