What happened to Blake Swihart?
Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (July 29, 2018 – Source: Adam Glanzman/Getty Images North America)
Since September 7th, Blake Swihart has made just two starts and in September he has only batted 19 times. Granted, he has been doing poorly in those sparse opportunities, batting .176 with one extra-base hit. In part because of the recent struggle, the switch-hitter has produced a lowly 53 wRC+ and -0.3 fWAR this season. He’s also batting .221 with a .294 slugging percentage. By all accounts, he’s been bad in his admittedly relatively paltry 176 plate appearances. Even so, there’s this pervasive belief that Swihart is a valuable commodity.
Yes, he’s flashed the burners with a slightly above league average sprint speed of 27.2 ft/s. Sure, he has a pretty quick pop time to second with an around league average pop time of 1.97 seconds. Both speak to the impressive athleticism of the versatile player. Regardless, those peripheral skills are merely approximately average and the enigmatic bat of his has been an extreme liability.
He does hit the ball high with a launch angle of 14.5 degrees compared to the league average of 10.9. He’s almost hit as many flyballs as groundballs, which is typically a good thing. The thing is, though, he’s not hitting these flyballs particularly hard. The 26-year-old sports a significantly below average Hard Hit% of 25.4 percent (league average is 34.1 percent). Further, his barrel percentage, which is the ideal mixture of launch angle and exit velocity, of 4.2 percent falls noticeably behind the MLB 6.1 percent average.
Swihart has not been able to do damage on the balls he makes contact with and he does not have the plate discipline to compensate. He has struck out a quarter of the time and his walk rate is nothing to marvel at either. So, where do we find anything in the way of redeeming?
Well, in the beginning of the season he was not given consistent at-bats. This was thought to be the reason for his offensive struggles. It was convenient that in July he started hitting well when he started to play more. He batted over .400 that month with a complementary 197 wRC+ in 38 plate appearances. The praises begun as the calls for displacement of the struggling bat of Sandy Leon grew louder.
Then, an injury forced him onto the disabled list, curtailing the Swihart support. In 55 plate appearances since August began, the part-time catcher has hit .192 with a 27 wRC+. He has a K% (strikeout percentage) of 29.1 percent and a BB% of 5.5 percent during that span. You may want to dismiss this as a small sample or as the result of the hamstring injury, which have a tendency of lingering. That may be a partial explanation but it also seems a bit lazy.
We have a 176 plate appearance sample, which is still not great, and he has produced runs 45 percent below an average hitter. His underlying offensive numbers bolster the fact he is producing essentially what he should be and that’s not much. Swihart is not a defensive stalwart and his baserunning, while very good, is flashier because he’s supposed to be a catcher. He has an average sprint speed.
It seems plausible, given his once prospect pedigree, that there could be a semblance of talent in there. It is just not there right now, whether it is his true talent playing or the hamstring injury lingering and sapping his offense to obscurity.
Still, he has arguably been better than both Christian Vazquez (44 wRC+ and -0.7 fWAR) and Sandy Leon this year (39 wRC+ and -0.8 fWAR). Though the latter seems to be a genie at calling games and handling staffs, his quantifiable production is abhorrent.
For those upset with the Red Sox for failing to acquire a bullpen arm midseason, they should probably look at where Boston ranks in catcher stats. They have, by far, the worst wRC+ at 43 and the group has been worth -1.8 fWAR. The next closet is the Arizona Diamondbacks which have a collective -0.6 catcher fWAR. Boston’s catcher triple that.
Blake Swihart, at this point in his career, is nothing more than a demonstrable below league-average hitter with interesting peripheral skills. Moreover, there’s not convincing evidence that he will become anything more than that.