Boston Red Sox catcher Blake Swihart explains how he’s made adjustments behind the plate to improve defensively in his second season.
Most of the attention given to Red Sox catchers in camp this spring has thus far been focused on Christian Vazquez, who is returning from Tommy John surgery that sidelined him all of last season. Even veteran backup Ryan Hanigan has had his share of the spotlight thanks to a few trade rumors that have trickled out. Meanwhile, the man expected to be behind the dish on Opening Day has flown a bit under the radar.
Blake Swihart enters his first full season with the Red Sox with something to prove. The 23-year old was rushed to the big leagues last year when the team was crippled by injuries at the catcher position, forcing him to continue his development under the bright lights in Boston at a time that he should have been learning his craft in Pawtucket.
The result was that Swihart understandably struggled out of the gate. His bat woke up from a slow start to finish strong, but that comes as no surprise considering Swihart shot up the Red Sox prospect ranks based primarily on a ceiling that projected him to become one of the best hitting catchers in the game. Given what we saw in his first taste of big league action, he may already be there. Among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances last season, Swihart’s .274 average was the best in the American League, while his .712 OPS was 4th.
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His production at the plate has never been in question, it’s his role behind it that has been a concern. Despite appearing in only 83 games, Swihart’s -16 defensive runs saved put him at the bottom of the majors at his position. He also allowed the second most passed balls with 16 and threw out only 28 percent of opposing base runners.
With a year of experience at the major league level under his belt, Swihart enters camp feeling more prepared for his defensive responsibilities.
"“Right now everything catching-wise is pretty much better than it was last year,” Swihart told WEEI’s Rob Bradford. “My blocking is on time, my footwork is good, my throwing to second base, I’ve had one guy steal and I threw the heck out of it to second. Everything feels really good. Not everything was on time and put together right. But now it is.”"
Swihart went on to reveal some of the adjustments he’s made that have him feeling more comfortable behind the plate. Instead of dropping his glove until the pitch arrives, he’s now making a conscious effort to ensure his mitt faces the mound to set a better target for the pitcher. By presenting his glove steady in the spot he wants the ball to be thrown he’s hoping to steal more strike calls along the edge of the zone. This pitch-framing technique is one of the traits that has made his teammate Vazquez one of the elite catchers in the game.
We can’t expect Swihart to suddenly transform into the caliber catcher that Vazquez is, but he doesn’t have to. Swihart’s bat gives him All-Star upside as long as he can perform adequately enough defensively to stick at the position.
Rumors have already started swirling that the Red Sox may entertain the idea of eventually shifting Swihart to another position in order to keep his bat in the lineup while simultaneously taking advantage of Vazquez’s defensive skills. While Swihart hits well enough to profile sufficiently at first base or a corner outfield spot, he’s not nearly as valuable at those positions. Instead of being among the best offensive catchers in the game, he’d merely look about average compared to the competition at those other spots.
With Vazquez expected to begin the season in Triple-A as he works his way back from a year off, Swihart will begin the season as the primary catcher for the Red Sox. If the adjustments he’s made defensively show a significant improvement behind the plate then that role may be his to keep for the long run.