Red Sox: Blake Swihart makes debut in left field


The Boston Red Sox are using Blake Swihart’s demotion to the minors as an opportunity to test him in left field, but is that where he belongs?

Blake Swihart was behind the dish for only six games this season, but that was enough to convince the Boston Red Sox that they couldn’t wait any longer to replace his spot on the roster with the defensive-minded Christian Vazquez.

In the limited sample that we saw of Swihart in the big leagues it was clear that he was struggling with his responsibilities as a catcher. He had trouble keeping the ball in front of him, allowing three passed balls in only six games, while throwing out only one of the four runners that attempted a steal against him. His lack of catching experience was a clear problem, the result of transitioning to the position late in his high school career, then being rushed to the big leagues before he was ready.

There are few catchers that manage a pitching staff as well as Vazquez or possess his elite pitch framing ability, so with the Red Sox rotation struggling early this season it became more imperative to call him up. That meant sending Swihart back to Triple-A Pawtucket, where he would be given the opportunity to refine his catching skills.

Except catching isn’t the only position that Swihart will be working on in Pawtucket, as the Red Sox are using his demotion to the minors as an opportunity to test him in left field. Swihart made his first start in left Thursday night, playing all nine innings at the position. He caught both balls that came his way, including an acrobatic catch on a sinking line drive to end the sixth inning.

The early returns would seem to indicate that Swihart is capable of handling left field. He certainly has the athleticism to make the transition and seems to be willing to do whatever it takes to put him back on a path to the big leagues. This position switch wouldn’t be nearly as disastrous as what we saw when the Red Sox attempted to put Hanley Ramirez in left field a year ago, while Swihart could end up adapting quite well to the outfield.

But just because Swihart can handle the position defensively, doesn’t mean he should.

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The issue with moving Swihart to the outfield is that it significantly decreases his value. Swihart was considered an elite prospect during his rise through the farm system based on his bat, which profiled as being elite for his position. He has the chance to become something special as one of the best hitting catchers in the game, but he’s suddenly not quite as special if he moves to another position.

Last year Swihart led American League catchers with a .273 average and was fourth with a .712 OPS. Considering he was a 23-year old rookie at the time, he would only be expected to improve with more experience at the major league level. Swihart hit .303 with an .805 OPS after the break, signaling what he was capable of becoming.

Those numbers indicate elite level offensive production for a catcher, but they don’t translate well to left field. Swihart would have ranked outside the top-20 among major league left fielders in OPS and Slugging last season. The corner outfield spots are traditionally where teams look to find power, but Swihart doesn’t fit the profile of a power-hitting slugger.

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Swihart will surely hit for more power as he matures, while reducing the amount of wear and tear that catchers endure behind the plate would certainly have a positive effect on his offensive production. He would still develop into an above-average corner outfield bat, but that’s not nearly as valuable as getting elite offense from the catcher position.

If the Red Sox are intent on Vazquez being their long-term solution at the catcher position then they need to figure out what to do with Swihart. He’s too valuable to be a mere backup that plays a couple times per week. The left field experiment may be a way to keep his bat in the lineup on the days that he’s not catching, similar to how the San Francisco Giants have used Buster Posey at first base on occasion. The difference is that Posey is still his team’s primary catcher, whereas Swihart would only be catching when Vazquez rests.

Ideally Swihart should be left at the catcher position so that he can retain his enticing value. That may mean he won’t fit into the long term plans for the Red Sox, but if they were ever to entertain the idea of trading him then he needs to remain a catcher in order to get the most value in return for him.

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The time Swihart spends in Pawtucket should be primarily focused on developing as a catcher. Sure, he’s struggled with the position so far, but he’s young and it’s far too early to give up on the idea that he can be an everyday catcher in the big leagues. If they want to stick him in left field on occasion as a way to keep his bat in the lineup when he’s not catching, fine. Just don’t let it come at the expense of him honing his craft as a catcher.