All seemed as it should be for the Boston Red Sox, concerning their catching situation.
Veteran catcher Ryan Hanigan would be the backup for the backstop, with another veteran Humberto Quintero in the mix. However, starter Christian Vazquez is still injured, leading to a possible call of duty for top catching prospect Blake Swihart.
ESPN Boston‘s Gordon Edes reported two days ago that “given the amount of time [Vazquez] has missed and the caution with which the Sox are proceeding regarding his sore right elbow, it appears increasingly doubtful he will break camp with the team.” He has not played since March 13:
"“[Vazquez] took a little bit of a guarded approach, which affected his throwing mechanics, and he started getting soreness in his triceps. We altered his throwing program to get back to his natural arm slot and natural way of throwing, and we’re building that back up right now.” – Red Sox manager John Farrell"
Like knees and hips, the arm muscles are very complicated, with the shoulder, elbow and wrist each depending on the other as a united force to cycle around the joints and summon power from the surrounding muscles at the release point, when throwing a baseball. However, that release point cannot be accurate if the arm cannot be extended. As Edes alludes, “the triceps is the large muscle at the back of the elbow that is principally responsible for the extension of the joint.”
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If Vazquez cannot extend, he cannot harness the power or accuracy to throw out runners attempting to steal bases. The 24-year-old from Puerto Rico excelled in that quality skill, last season, throwing out 15 baserunners for a 52% average for the Red Sox.
That kind of defensive weapon would not only be lost, if Vazquez can’t throw, it would be exploited by other teams, making him a liability. Every opposing batter who gets on base would have an opportunity, knowing that Vazquez will not throw the ball, to advance around the bases into scoring position, making life very difficult for Red Sox starting pitchers.
Following up, NESN‘s Ricky Doyle reported yesterday about Vazquez being scheduled that morning for an MRI. Farrell said, “There hasn’t been a setback. As a matter of fact, his throwing has increased. But because we’re in the 11th or 12th day and not back into game situations yet, just want to answer every possible question.”
Mar 8, 2015; Port St. Lucie, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez (7) throws to first base against the New York Mets during a spring training baseball game at Tradition Field. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Doyle also believes that the situation, in replacing Vazquez, is complicated. “Swihart represents the more popular choice given his potential, but the Red Sox could decide to keep him at Triple-A Pawtucket to avoid potentially stunting his development. The extent of Vazquez’s elbow issue probably will answer the question of who receives the nod.”
Considering young players like outfielder Mookie Betts are having incredible spring performances, the trend may continue with Swihart.
Remember, Betts also had a breakout performance last season, in a small sample size of games (52), as well as a stellar minor league career before the move up. Swihart’s recent efforts give rise to that continuation possibility. The 22-year-old native of Texas hit a home run and 5 RBIs in 10 games. He hit .381, with a .435 on-base percentage, and a .571 slugging percentage in 21 at-bats, this spring. For Portland and Pawtucket, last season, Swihart’s batting line was .293 / .341 / .469, with 13 home runs and 64 RBIs, in 416 at-bats.
However, it may be smart to keep Swihart from being discouraged. So far, Swihart has only faced a few big league pitchers, gaining success from starters possibly not even making their respective teams. He still has much to learn, as his combined numbers in 2014 are a bit lower if you only factor in his Triple-A experience (.261 / .282 / .377). Shellshocking the kid against top starting pitching on a regular basis, while Vazquez may be away, may do more harm than good, until he progresses further.
Swihart’s defense may be as formidable as Vazquez, with catching 28 of all baserunners attempting to steal (47%) in Double-A Portland, but there is no reason to panic and throw his learning curve to the side.
Mar 13, 2015; Fort Myers, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox catcher Ryan Hanigan (10) throws to third base during the third inning against the New York Yankees at JetBlue Park. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Hanigan’s spring may not have born as much fruit as Swihart, so far, but hitting .250 in the spring with no home runs or RBIs is not what the Red Sox pay him to do. They pay him to be a solid backup catcher, one whom can replace a starter until he returns. Hanigan, last season, hit .218, with 5 home runs and 34 RBIs in 84 games for the Tampa Bay Rays. He is experienced at the plate against American League East pitching, something Swihart is not.
The only argument against the eight-year vet from Washington, D.C. is the fielding issue, as he only threw out 21% of all steal attempts; however, in 2012 and 2013, he threw out baserunners at a rate of 48% and 45%, respectively.
There’s even a good chance of Swihart not even getting the backup role for the backup, as the 12-year journeyman Quintero is also available.
It may make sense to keep Swihart up during spring training, to expose him as much to the big leagues, without damaging his progress. It may also make sense to give Swihart more time with the team he likely will start with, this season. He only played 18 games in Triple-A Pawtucket, so he needs to adjust with his starting rotation. There is plenty of time for Swihart, without having to step aside when Vazquez gets back. Why the rush? Let the kid grow. The man who comes from it will thank everyone for the wait, with his bat and his arm, when the time is right.
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