Backup catcher Blake Swihart has a lot to prove
Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (July 9, 2018 – Source: Adam Glanzman/Getty Images North America)
Blake Swihart has had an interesting season, to say the least. After a torrid Spring Training showing, he earned himself a spot on the active roster but instantly became the 25th man on a very good ball club. He struggled to find consistent at-bats and, when he did, the switch-hitter failed to capitalize. Consequently, frustrations mounted and, seeing no clear path to regular playing time, he requested to be traded to a different team.
When Dustin Pedroia worked his way off the disabled list (temporarily), it appeared like a foregone conclusion Swihart would receive the boot. After all, it was evident Boston was having an impossible time getting him in games and did not trust him with catching duties. Well, in a move that shocked the world, Boston opted to part ways with the charismatic Hanley Ramirez instead of Swihart.
The Red Sox seemingly patched things over with the 26-year-old who was out of minor-league options. HanRam’s departure would theoretically allow him to get on the field much more frequently, which is something Swihart had been yearning for. This theoretical did, indeed, come to fruition and the once-heralded prospect got more opportunities.
With that said, he continued to struggle with the stick, even with the (marginal) increase in playing time. Between when Ramirez was let go (May 25th) and before Christian Vazquez was injured (July 7th), Swihart produced a .216 batting average with just one in extra-base hit in 55 plate appearances. In that same span, he featured an abysmal 39 wRC+ while striking out nearly a third of the time.
During that period, the Red Sox brought in lefty-masher Steve Pearce to lengthen the bench, essentially taking Hanley Ramirez’s role. As such, Swihart, despite his positional versatility, reverted to the same position he was before: starving for at-bats and unable to take advantage of the paltry chances he was given.
There were calls to end the Swihart experiment and, even if that proposal was insensible given the lack of alternatives, most fans and pundits had lost all hope in him.
The 2011 1st-round pick has been given a “final chance”, however, as catcher Christian Vazquez went down with a finger injury. The Red Sox backstop will be sidelined for 6 to 8 weeks with a broken pinkie. Sandy Leon will takeover the starting catcher role, but given the strenuous nature of the position, Swihart assumes the vital role of backup catcher. He should be able to get one or two starts behind the plate a week and perhaps an occasional start at one of the other myriad of positions he is capable of playing.
Ironically, the Red Sox have been hesitant to give Swihart catching opportunities all season, even when Vazquez and Leon were in the midst of enormous struggles. He has logged just 23 innings behind the dish, starting in just two this year. Recently, his job as the backup catcher began with a July 10th game against the Texas Rangers when he was the starter and appeared serviceable at the position.
This is an egregiously small sample size but Swihart has recorded five hits in his last nine tries, including two doubles. Even so, Swihart’s season slash line sits an unsightly .205 AVG/.263 OBP/.250 SLG in 95 plate appearances. Still, Swihart has had less than 100 tries at the plate this year, which is not nothing but it is closer to nothing than something.
It is hard to make sweeping declarations about a player’s future performance based on such a small sample. His underlying stats, which are more predictive in limited chances, offer some hope that perhaps he has hit the ball better than his results show. For example, his xwOBA (expected wOBA), based on how he’s hit the ball (exit velocity and launch angle) factored in with his strikeout and walk totals, is .278 in 2018. Surely, this is considerably below league-average (.317) but is much better than the .227 wOBA he has churned. Further, his xSLG (expected slugging percentage) is .358, which is much better than .250.
Additionally, it is no secret that the inconsistent playing time has hindered Swihart and his ability to find a rhythm. People have been talking about this point all year and, really, nothing has changed. He has not gotten a big boost in plate appearances since Ramirez has departed. Plus, 13 of his 95 trips to the plate have been of the pinch-hit variety and the pinch-hit penalty is statistically a truth. He’s 2 for 13 this season as a pinch hitter.
The Red Sox have no other catchers on the 40-man roster and none knocking on the door in their system. If Boston were to decide they wanted more catcher depth, it would have to come via trade. Vazquez will be out well past the trade deadline and there are no indications that the Red Sox are interested in adding another catcher to the team at this time.
Most likely, it will be Leon and Swihart, with the latter being handed his best opportunity to shine this season. It is a position many are unsure if he can handle, but one he has grown up and been groomed at.
Even when Vazquez returns, it does not appear this will be Swihart’s last rodeo with the Red Sox. Time can obviously change that but the Red Sox really do not have great options on the 40-man to replace him. Since Tzu-Wei Lin has been called up for the injured Rafael Devers, Boston currently only has one position player on the 40-man who is not on the active roster. That player is Sam Travis and he is batting .227 in Triple-A.
Brandon Phillips could also pose a threat to his future job security but that is not written stone whatsoever. Phillips, while a nice depth piece, will have to prove himself in the Red Sox system.
Swihart also has the positional versatility, which Lin admittedly also has. He does not have minor-league options like Lin, though, and he can catch baseballs, which no one else besides Sandy Leon or Christian Vazquez on the 40-man can do.
There should be some optimism that Swihart will hit better now that he is getting more opportunities. Moreover, based on how he has actually hit the baseball, he should be doing better than his results show. There most certainly could be regression to the mean, even if everyone is unaware of what that mean is for Blake Swihart.
Regardless, this is a huge opportunity for him and one that he seems poised to take advantage of. The expectation for his performance is not great but he has the chance to shift that expectation in either direction. It very well could make or break Swihart’s future as a Boston Red Sox.