Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Blake Swihart.
The Question: Does Blake Swihart really just need consistent playing time to finally click?
There may not be a more controversial and enigmatic player on the Red Sox roster, at least in terms of fans’ opinions, than Blake Swihart. There are a variety of different viewpoints on the catcher’s merits as a major-league contributor, and it can be intimidating saying something even a little positive or negative about him because people feel so strongly on everything from his talent level to the way he’s been handled by the Red Sox organization. Personally, I think it would be hard to argue against the fact that he’s been handled poorly. The year they sent him to the outfield was a bizarre decision that has totally backfired, and the general public uneasiness from the team regarding his defense behind the plate hasn’t helped matters.
I also think there’s not much that can be done about the poor handling here in 2019, and as the organization tries to figure out where they go next with the catching position they can really only focus on the players as they stand now, flaws and all. That’s the case even if they were major contributors in those flaws popping up in the first place. As we look ahead to Opening Day and try to figure out how the catching situation figures itself out, most (myself included) seem to believe the decision will ultimately come down to Swihart or Sandy León. The general argument for the former essentially comes down to him having a higher ceiling (hard to argue that) and the fact that he simply needs more consistent playing time for him to truly click. The question today is whether or not there’s really any merit to that last statement.
Consider that, over the last few years, playing time and roles have been anything but consistent for the former number one prospect in the Red Sox system. I alluded to 2016 above when Swihart was quickly yanked from the catching role and inexplicably placed in the outfield. He’d eventually suffer a year-ending injury in August, and in that entire year he played in just 19 games in the majors and 29 games in Pawtucket. Then, in 2017, Swihart spent most of the year in the minors, appearing in 62 games between Pawtucket and the GCL (on rehab assignment) with an additional six games in the big leagues. That’s 116 games across two seasons, and while a lot of was due to injury he also just couldn’t find consistent footing on any roster.
That brought us to 2018, when Swihart entered the year lacking minor-league options. It was a sink-or-swim year for him, as the Red Sox still weren’t really sure how they saw him. Most saw him off the roster at some point shortly after the season began, if not beforehand, but a Christian Vázquez injury made it easier to keep Swihart around. Still, he barely played, and when he did he was moving all around the diamond. It led to a poor year that finished with him being about 35 percent worse than the league-average hitter by both OPS+ and wRC+.
However, he did look better in the second half when he started to play more. The two months in which the then-26-year-old received his highest total of plate appearances were July and September, and in those months he finished with OPS’s of 1.091 and .713, respectively. Of course, it should be mentioned in August he received only two fewer plate appearances than he did in July and he finished that month with a .479 OPS. Still, it was clear that as he began to play more Swihart started to look better at the plate.
On the other hand, even when he was receiving relatively consistent playing time in those minor-league stints he wasn’t hitting well against Triple-A pitching. In 2017, he played basically the entire month of April in Pawtucket and finished that month with an OPS of just .625. Then, after returning from an injury in late-May, Swihart received 111 plate appearances before another injury, and during that stretch he had an OPS of just .577. He didn’t start hitting better towards the end of either of those runs, either, which runs contrary to our playing time theory.
While I don’t think we’ll have a good answer to this question without actually seeing it play out in 2019, the most helpful course of action from here would be to check what exactly has been holding him back at the plate against major-league pitching. It hasn’t really been a quality of contact — he hasn’t hit for power, but while that should theoretically improve some it’s likely never going to be a focal point of his game — as he’s posted good-to-great batting averages on balls in play over his entire career. Instead, it’s been his plate discipline, and more specifically his high strikeout rates.
If Swihart isn’t going to be a big power hitter, and there’s little indication he’ll ever be that kind of hitter, then he needs to put the ball in play more. Over his career, the former first round pick has struck out over 25 percent of the time including a rate over 27 percent last year. At the peak of his prospect status he was striking out between 15 and 17 percent of the time. His zone recognition has been off, as in 2018 he was in the bottom-third of the league in swing rate on pitches in the zone while he was in the top-third of the league in swing rate on pitcher out of the zone. This is per Baseball Prospectus among the 360 players who saw at least 750 pitches in 2018. Swihart saw 798. To his credit, though, he did cut way down on his strikeouts in the second half when that more consistent playing time kicking in. After striking out in 34 percent of his plate appearances in the first half, that rate fell down to 24 percent after the All-Star break. It seems reasonable to believe seeing live pitching on a more consistent basis would help with more consistent contact.
With all of these words virtually spoken about Swihart, we haven’t even touched on the defense. I think it’s both true that he is better than the Red Sox organization has let on behind the plate and also that he is a significant step behind both León and Vázquez. Ultimately, that is likely how the Red Sox are going to make that decision, as they appear to value defense much more at catcher than any other position and can live with a lack of offense there. Still, if Swihart can be a better, more consistent option at the plate with consistent playing time, his defense is good enough to be a better option than León. It’s just that, if that theory is incorrect, he doesn’t have the strong baseline of defensive skill that León has.
At the end of the day, I can’t honestly say I have a good feel for whether or not consistent playing time will click something for Swihart. I want to say yes, but the fact of the matter is he we are talking about a guy heading into his age-27 season who has one solid full season under his belt back in 2015. The other part of the calculation here is whether or not he’d get consistent playing time even if he is kept, because Vázquez seems destined for the starting catcher job. I certainly would not begrudge the Red Sox for keeping Swihart over León, and the argument to do so that is perfectly sound. That being said, it may be best for the team to stick with the defense and the more known commodity. On top of that, it would almost certainly be best for Swihart to get a fresh start in another organization and make the Red Sox regret the decision once he gets that consistent playing time.