This is Blake Swihart‘s moment. Granted, it’s a moment that has been 4+ seasons in the making, but it’s here nonetheless. As soon as starting catcher Christian Vazquez headed to the DL with a broken pinkie on July 8th, Red Sox nation turned their eyes to a former top prospect who had fallen on some difficult times.
If Swihart is able to deliver on his initial promise, he could be a difference maker both in the present and the future. If not, it will likely be an end to one of the more frustrating (and strange) Red Sox careers in recent memory.
A Long, Strange Trip
This crossroads has been a long time coming. Swihart was ranked #1 among all Red Sox farmhands by SoxProspects.com as late as April 9, 2015. He headed up a then-stacked minor league system that included names like Yoan Moncada, Henry Owens, Rafael Devers, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Michael Kopech. Swihart made his first start on May 2, and proceeded to slash .274/.319/.392 in 308 PA with below average defense behind the dish.
In 2016, Swihart appeared in only 16 games after defensive issues led to his relinquishing of the starting catcher position to Vazquez. Then-manager John Farrell gave him some run in left field, where he almost immediately suffered a broken ankle. That injury sidelined Swihart for the remainder of the ’16 campaign, and much of 2017 as well. In 71 games at the minor league level last season, Swihart only managed to muster a .210/.291/.306 slash.
This season, Swihart was tried out in the infield during spring training, due to lingering discomfort from that same ankle injury. While he made the 25 man roster in a utility role, he spent much of the early part of the season riding the pine. Things got bad enough that Swihart’s agent requested a trade. However, other teams weren’t exactly lining up for a failed catcher with a sub-.200 batting average.
Now Swihart is sharing catching duties with Sandy Leon, a roundabout way back to where his major league story began.
Red Sox Catching: Not Great!
Swihart’s return behind the plate comes at a time when the Sox are looking for answers there. Since 2014, Red Sox catchers have slashed only .244/.300/.351. They are 28th in RC+, and 26th in fWAR. This season, Red Sox catchers have posted a 56 wRC+ and a -0.5 fWAR (both 29th in the bigs).
Vazquez and Leon have handled the bulk of the work at that spot for the Sox this year. Neither have an OPS over .650. Leon has also managed to post a 26.7 K%, which is only matched in it’s mediocrity by Vazquez’s .087 ISO.
Granted, catcher isn’t considered a premium offensive position. But for a team with World Series aspirations, those numbers qualify as a black hole.
Swihart Heating Up?
To be fair to Leon and Vazquez, Swihart hasn’t lit the world on fire either. He’s only mustered a .218/.288/.287 line in 111 PA this season. His ISO (.069) is even lower than Vazquez’s, and he’s striking out at almost the same rate as Leon.
However, there have been signs of life. In 23 PA since Vazquez’s injury, Swihart has reached base 10 times. If you extend that window out to June 26, he’s hitting .407/.484/.593. Over that same span, Leon is batting only .218/.283/.382. These are all tiny sample sizes, and drawing lasting conclusions from them can be dangerous. But, there’s evidence that we could be (finally) closing in on a Swihart breakthrough.
Swihart was 1-3 with a walk on Friday night vs. the Twins. His defense was unspectacular, but not detrimental.
At this point, “unspectacular but not detrimental” is all the Red Sox need from their catchers. It’ll be worth seeing whether their former top prospect can provide more than that.