Red Sox: Has Blake Swihart caught Steve Blass disease?
By Rick McNair
Blake Swihart of the Boston Red Sox has developed a throwing problem – getting the ball back to the pitcher. Will this be the potential end of his catching career?
When does a simple task – one that is routinely accomplished – suddenly become as mystical as quantum physics? That has just happened to Blake Swihart as noted from several sources and this one is known among players as a case of the “yips.”
Swihart’s problem is the simplest of all – a routine toss to the pitcher that can vary in plus or minus from the 60’ average. A play that any catcher can accomplish from Little League to the major leagues since it involves routine muscle memory. Autonomic nervous system? Not sure how it would be classified, but I will leave that topic to those far more familiar with muscle groupings.
The good news is the “throwing disease” is curable, but the bad news is sometimes it isn’t. The better news – at least for Swihart – is another catcher who developed the same condition and probably should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame – Dale Murphy.
Murphy caught the disease early in his career with the Atlanta Braves and the frustration finally culminated in taking the athletic Murphy and finding another spot for him on the field. Just like Swihart in 2016, he found his place in the outfield. Murphy became a two-time MVP, a perennial All-Star, and won five Gold Gloves as an outfielder.
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The throwing issue is often named after pitcher Steve Blass. Blass was a talented right-handed hurler who in 1972 won 19 games for the Pirates, finished second in the Cy Young Award ballot, made the All-Star team and won a game in the NLCS. Blass finished the season with a 3.0 BB/9. That was virtually the end.
In 1973 Blass lost the ability to find the plate and it deteriorated as the season progressed to the point where he averaged a walk per inning. In 1974 at Charleston in the International League, Blass posted a 15.2 BB/9 and never regained his ability to find the plate. Blass gives us “Steve Blass Disease” just as Tommy John has a surgery named after him.
Steve Sax was a National League Rookie of the Year, an All-Star, Silver Slugger winner, and a two-time World Series champion when he suddenly found it almost impossible to make throws from his second base position. Other infielders have also suffered from this sudden outbreak – sometimes they get through it and sometimes they do not.
Former Red Sox ace Jon Lester received attention for his inability to toss to first base. A pick-off attempt became an adventure as the ball could be tossed just about anywhere in the vicinity of first base.
Pitchers form a symbiotic relationship with catchers and sometimes their fragile pitching psyche needs a comfort zone – which we see with the idea of a personal catcher. Is it real? There are statistics to say yes and others to say no, but the reality is a pitcher has to have confidence in his catcher. Without that bonding who knows what the reaction will be?
The players – especially pitchers – will say all the “right things” and a stream of positives and encouragement will take place, but what are they really thinking?
“What impact will a catcher who may deliver the ball to left field have on my precious stats? Will the opposition have open season on the base paths?”
Spring training will show us all we need to know, but for Swihart, he – like Murphy – has other options. Swihart is athletic – a translation for he has the talent to play elsewhere – and that opens up possibilities. Swihart has that nice bat that has attracted attention from other teams with his hitting potential.
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For the Red Sox, they have an option on Swihart and can send him off to Pawtucket to rehabilitate his arm or play the outfield, or first base, and maybe even third base? If Swihart proves himself capable defensively at any position and hits he becomes a valuable trade chip.