When Christian Vazquez went down with a broken finger, it seemed as if the Red Sox were going to have issues getting production out of the catcher position. Although Vazquez was not exactly setting the world on fire, losing him meant either Sandy Leon would have to catch full-time — something that he neither profiled well for nor had much experience with — or Blake Swihart would get reps behind the plate — something that he hadn’t come close to proving he could hande. Leon had mostly been utilized as a platoon player, and has never played more than 85 games in a season, and Blake Swihart’s only consistent catching experience came in 2015, where he was one of the worst defensive catchers in the majors. The situation seemed headed for disaster, but has instead turned into a solid part of the roster, at least when you consider the lack of overall production from this position around the league.
Since Vazquez’ injury, Sandy Leon has produced an abysmal .434 OPS and a wRC+ of 14. However, his game management behind the plate has been spectacular, and he ranks out as a top-10 defensive catcher in the league. Baseball Prospectus has him worth 9.2 framing runs and 0.3 blocking runs thus far this year. The Sox have gone 29-6 in his last 35 starts, and basically every member of the pitching staff have heaped praise on him and his in-game decision making. Some have even gone so far as to call him the best catcher with whom they’ve ever worked. It’s clear Red Sox pitchers are most comfortable with Leon catching, despite his offensive woes.
Perhaps most impressive, however, has been the marked improvement Blake Swihart has shown. In 2015, Swihart was worth -1.9 framing runs in over 5000 framing chances, and -3.7 blocking runs in over 3500 blocking chances. This year, Blake has had just 743 framing chances and 494 blocking chances, but has still been worth 1 framing run and 0.2 blocking runs. It’s hard to overstate just how big of a leap that is. Additionally, he has shown off a great arm, with a pop time on throws to 2B of 1.93 seconds, good for sixth best in the league. Blake has not only transformed himself into a solid defensive catcher, but has shown the ability to play the OF, 1B, and even 3B. While his season numbers offensively have not been great, he has been better of late, slashing .311/.354/.443 with a 101 wRC+ since June 24. Now, this is a small 69-plate appearance sample, but it’s also the first time all year he’s gotten some semi-regular playing time. There’s an argument on both sides with respect to the sustainability.
Although both Swihart and Leon have produced in Vazquez’ absence, the latter is now out for a rehab assignment, and his return is imminent. Where does he fit in now, and what does that mean for Swihart? My guess is that Alex Cora will most likely revert back to the Leon/Vazquez platoon, which means Swihart will switch back to his utility role, filling in at first, in the outfield, or wherever he is needed. However, if Vazquez struggles offensively as he has in the past, Swihart has done more than enough to earn starts behind the plate and to serve as Leon’s backup through October.