Red Sox: Will Blake Swihart catch on this season?

May 30, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Boston Red Sox left fielder Blake Swihart (23) triples during the sixth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Red Sox won 7-2. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
May 30, 2016; Baltimore, MD, USA; Boston Red Sox left fielder Blake Swihart (23) triples during the sixth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Red Sox won 7-2. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports /

The Boston Red Sox have determined that Blake Swihart can concentrate on catching. Just what are his chances of being the number one catcher?

The latest decree from Boston Red Sox management is that Blake Swihart will be part of the catching mix and that puts an end to the left field option.

I don’t buy it. That option is sure to have a revisit if Andrew Benintendi happens to flame out – highly unlikely, but he would not be the first Red Sox top ranked prospect to crash and burn.

The Red Sox had an opportunity to trade one of their three catchers as the Arizona Diamondbacks expressed interest in two. The Red Sox turned a firm no to former Red Sox executive Mike Hazen and that is now baseball history. Three are now in the mix for two roster slots.

What are the chances that Swihart takes over as the primary backstop? The most significant evaluation tool is to look at the competition and that means defense first unless one morphs into Mike Piazza.

Both Sandy Leon and Christian Vazquez are simply a better defensive option that Swihart. Both draw raves or at least semi raves for their abilities behind the plate. Both have superior arms to Swihart. Both certainly “feel the love” from pitchers. What’s not to like?

"Tim McCarver once went to the mound when Bob Gibson was pitching and was quickly told to return. “The only thing you know about pitching is that you can’t hit it.” – Grantland"

Pitchers have fragile psyches. They have a certain comfort zone and sometimes that comfort zone requires a personal catcher. Catchers have made careers thanks to a top of the line pitcher needing their own professional security blanket. I have seen the reams of data that dispute this or verify it. Does Swihart have that quality? That could decide who the catchers are and how often.

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The other part of the catching equation is hitting. Baseball has catchers in the Hall of Fame who were notoriously inept with the bat. Ray Schalk hit .253 and 11 career home runs in 18 seasons and has a plaque. Rick Ferrell hit 28 home runs in an 18-year career as is in the HOF. His brother Wes Ferrell – a pitcher – slammed 38.

Leon has long been noted as a glove first and bat second type catcher. The Red Sox grabbed him from Washington not as a slugger, but a defensive player. Last season Leon magically transformed himself into a .310 hitter.

Leon hitting .310 is like watching Penn and Teller – you know it is not real, but an illusion. Watch the downward ladder: .355/.306/.213. That represents Leon’s average progression for the last three months. Does that give you a world of confidence that suddenly a switch-hitting Yogi Berra has emerged? Not for me.

Vazquez is the catching answer to that statement that seems to have gone for most of the decade regarding Jackie Bradley – “If he could only hit?” Vaz simply has not impressed with that bat unless, of course, you are Dellin Betances is trying to sneak in a fast one.

Swihart can hit, but just how much may determine his catching future. In a brief 103 major league games, Swihart has a .271 average with five home runs. Swihart is a switch-hitter and that allows some level of staying in the lineup. Swihart has hit .277 against right-handers and .259 against lefties, so there is a consistency to his hitting.

Vazquez and Leon are catchers. They look like catchers meaning they resemble a fireplug or steamer truck. Swihart was placed in left field for a reason – he is athletic enough. Vaz or Leon to left would have made Hanley Ramirez experiment appear plausible.

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That versatility opens up options for Swihart. Swihart could be considered a spare outfield part. The Red Sox could option him to Pawtucket for additional seasoning at a multitude of positions. The Red Sox are mentioning designated hitter by committee and that could open up at-bats.

Catchers are fragile. Vasquez was gone for a season. Ryan Hanigan had his bell rung and missed many a game. Nicks and dents are common. A broken finger is nearly an annual event. Having Swihart on your roster is a nice insurance policy.

The Red Sox offense may not be as geared up as last season and a shortage of runs could mean as the search for some productivity – that could be Swihart – especially if he starts to hit in the .290 range. Too good with the bat to sit. Pitchers may see Swihart’s offensive numbers outweigh any of their own inhibitions.

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I have no confidence in the hitting of Leon or Vazquez. None. I have doubts either can hit .240. I doubt either will cause pitchers unpleasant dreams about facing them. I have a more lofty opinion of Swihart’s potential with the stick and he is not lost defensively behind the plate – he is a respectable backstop.  Somehow I see Swihart as a 100+ games catcher by year-end.

Sources: baseball-reference/Grantland