With the Red Sox 21-7 heading into May, it’s way too early, and the team is far too good, for us to have spent the better part of a week talking about Blake Swihart, a man with 21 plate appearances and a .390 OPS. Yet we all did it -- me, you, everyone. Don’t believe me? Look at this.
So here’s my question: What did we learn?
Six days ago I got on a podcast and screamed at two friends of mine, Jake Devereaux of this site and Matthew Kory of The Athletic, both Red Sox writers and smarty pantses, for being dumb. They were being dumb about Blake Swihart, and I was there to set them straight because I, too, was being dumb. No one can get worked up about a failed backup catcher on a team with a .750 win percentage and come off looking better for it. I certainly don’t. If I’m projecting, so be it. (Dummies.)
Jake and Matt believe the Red Sox should give Swihart playing time at catcher. I disagree. I posit that, given that they’ve started him at designated hitter, they certainly believe in a bat that hasn’t hit for more than an .800 OPS at any level since 2014, in AA ball. That, or they’re showcasing him for a possible trade, but either way: Occam’s Razor suggests that if he could play catcher he’d be catching.
I realize I’m never going to win some people over on this, and that’s fine. It’s okay to like Swihart! I’m just surprised by how many people there are whose concern for Swihart’s welfare trumps that of their concern for the team, or at least gives it a run for its money. It wasn’t just Jake and Matt, but those guys made two separate, representative arguments: Jake said Swihart hadn’t gotten a fair shot, and deserves one; Matt that the Red Sox should play him at catcher it in the interest of improving the team’s OPS, more or less.
To put it as mildly as possible for once, I do not believe either of these arguments passes the smell test. Swihart has had plenty of chances, many of them behind the plate, and has done nothing or worse with them. If you want to point to injuries, I’ll just say “health is a skill” like I believe that means anything, until you do too. Yes, it would be better for his development if he was on another team but if he was a better player he’d have more playing time on this one. He might be better than he’s shown, but he hasn’t been good enough (by definition) to force the issue.
To Matt’s argument, he’s probably right that Swihart would be a better hitter than Christian Vazquez or Sandy Leon, but he’s not certainly right by a long shot. His Major League OPS is .696. Leon’s is .652, Vazquez’s .648. Johnnies Bench they are not.
There are some logical flaws in the argument, too. If you were that worried about poor catcher hitting on a 21-7 team, you wouldn’t have Vazquez and Leon out there in the first place. If it ain’t broke, etc. Also, you cannot simultaneously point to Swihart’s small sample size of performance and toss aside the small sample size of the first 30-plus days (for the struggling Vazquez and Leon) and expect me to listen. Or you can, but that presumes you treat baseball exactly like fantasy baseball, where defensive skills at the defensive spot on the field don’t matter.
Which is to say they do matter! One suspects they matter quite a bit on a team with a veteran pitching staff, the best member of which famously never shakes off his catcher. Whatever one’s opinion, it’s clear that behind-the-plate competence is worth the almost purely theoretical 150 points of OPS the Sox are “giving up” with Leon and Vazquez in favor of Swihart, at least to the team. This is before we get to the point where we’re comparing only the best version of Swihart with the worst versions of Leon and Vazquez when, in fact, the latter two only stand to get better.
All of this came to a head Sunday, when Leon found himself at the plate in the eighth inning of a two-out tie game with the winning run on base and Xander Bogaerts on the bench. Twitter users (including us!) suggested, in lockstep, that the correct move was to pinch-hit Bogey or even the boogeyman himself:
How are they letting Sandy Leon hit here?— Christopher Smith (@SmittyOnMLB) April 29, 2018
Swihart. Swihart. Swihart. Swihart. Swihart.— Jason Mastrodonato (@JMastrodonato) April 29, 2018
Nope it's Sandy Leon hitting for himself with two on in a tie game in the eighth.
Leon should not be hitting right now— OverTheMonster (@OverTheMonster) April 29, 2018
Cora didn’t, Leon singled, and for their troubles got zinged by friend of the program (and egg sandwiches) Evan Drellich:
This is a good example of process vs. result. The result was good. The choice to let Sandy Leon bat was not, despite the result. If you can look beyond results, you may find… well, it’s heavy.— Evan Drellich (@EvanDrellich) April 29, 2018
On a purely numbers basis, this is correct: Bogaerts is a better hitter than Leon, and Leon’s hit doesn’t change that. But I think this is a case where the process of managing a baseball team across a season conflicted with the process of trying to win each game at all costs, and Cora chose the former. Even so, Cora had his reasons; he thought Xander, who wouldn’t have played the field, would have been pitched around, and thus the game would have been up to Tzu-Wei Lin, he of the .579 OPS. He went with Leon, it worked, even if it shouldn’t have.
I have no problem with it. It was a tie game, let your players play. It’s a long season, and I want the players to have shots in big spots. My take is that there is organizational and, ahem, “team-building” value in giving everyone a fair shot when things are down. These are proud, highly paid professionals and, at game time, it was still April, and the Sox still had the best record in baseball. I consider it part of the process: A happy workplace is a good workplace. Don’t mess with a good party. Mess with a bad one.
I think I have a minority opinion here, and I understand the other side of it. There is obviously real value in giving Bogaerts a chance to hit over Leon, though Cora’s certainly right about them pitching around Leon to get to Lin. (Cora also said Lin had to stay in the game for defensive purposes/Xander ankle rest.)
More to the point, that argument exists in the valley of the real. That one has the Red Sox’s best interests in mind. The big-picture Swihart one’s using a bad process — evaluating slight-to-moderate OPS gaps at catcher on a league-best team — and hoping for a good result — puppies and rainbows — based on the interest of the player on the odds of hitting an inside straight. It could work out, yes, and there’s the rub: That would rule! Would it be better than a 21-7 start to the season, capped by a phenomenally unlikely hit that serves as a perfect narrative end? Thankfully, we’ll never know. But also no.