Red Sox: Give Blake Swihart a chance

BOSTON, MA - JUNE 14: Blake Swihart #23 of the Boston Red Sox at bat against the Toronto Blue Jays during the second inning of the game at Fenway Park on June 14, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - JUNE 14: Blake Swihart #23 of the Boston Red Sox at bat against the Toronto Blue Jays during the second inning of the game at Fenway Park on June 14, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images) /

Despite a request for a trade, Blake Swihart deserves a real chance at catching for the Red Sox. He can’t be any worse.

Blake Swihart formally requested a trade from the Boston Red Sox, which was probably long overdue.

Here’s a condensed version of Swihart’s tenure in the Red Sox organization:

He was drafted in the 1st round of the 2011 draft as a catcher. By 2014, at age 22, he was firmly in Double-A and earned a promotion to Pawtucket by season’s close. He hit 13 homers and posted an .810 in 110 games that year. That performance earned him title of baseball’s number 17 overall prospect by Baseball America heading into 2015, and the best catching prospect in the game.

Rumors floated around that offseason about a potential trade with the Phillies for ace Cole Hamels with Swihart as the centerpiece. Other names like Mookie Betts (phew) and Henry Owens surfaced as potential complements in the deal, but an agreement never materialized. Swihart began 2015 in Pawtucket.

His power didn’t show up, slugging .351 in 20 games, but his .311 average and .363 on-base percentage were enough to show Boston that he had the offensive tools necessary to succeed. He was promoted, and played 84 games for the big league team. He managed 23 extra-base hits, slashing .274/.319/.392, good for a .712 OPS.

2015 was also the year when the myth of Swihart’s inability to play the catcher position began to gain steam. Looking at the numbers, it’s easy to see why. He accumulated -16 defensive runs saved, and was credited with 43 wild pitches and 16 passed balls. That’s… not pretty.

But consider this. Around the same time Swihart was called up to the big leagues, so was knuckleballer Steven Wright. Given their history together in the minor leagues, then-manager John Farrell decided that Swihart would catch every one of Wright’s appearances. And he did – all 72.2 innings. Watch some of the film from those games and you’ll find the vast majority of Swihart’s catching mistakes.

It’s not to completely dismiss the young backstop’s errors – there is likely a reason why the Red Sox have refused to give him any consistent chance to catch since that season. But at the same time, those numbers likely have something to do with it, and they’re skewed.

In the three years since 2015, Swihart has appeared in 40 games for Boston. He began 2016 as the primary catcher, before Farrell decided that he had seen enough in six games at catcher, and he was optioned to Triple-A. Later in the year he appeared in left field, but hurt his Achilles in a freak accident in foul territory. He would play six more games in 2017, and here we are – 2018.

Swihart slugged .485 in spring training and earned himself a spot on the 25-man roster. Manager Alex Cora called him the team’s utility player, and hinted at appearances in the corner outfield, catcher, and even around the infield.

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Fast forward to May 16, and Swihart has started all of four games – at designated hitter. He’s received 33 plate appearances, and the team has played 44 games. Essentially, instead of mixing in the 26-year old, the Red Sox are opting for a 24-man roster.

Meanwhile, Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon have been nothing short of horrendous. Vazquez’s .441 OPS is good for fifth-worst in franchise history. His defense hasn’t been up to par either, with a career-low 21 percent caught-stealing rate and -4 defensive runs saved. The result: -1.0 WAR.

Leon is hitting no better, with an OPS of .496. His defense has been more serviceable, although he’s allowed all six potential base stealers to swipe the extra bag. The result: -0.1 WAR.

Out of 71 catchers with 25 or more at-bats, Leon and Vazquez rank 58th and 66th, respectively, in OPS. To say the catching position has been an utter black hole in the lineup for the Red Sox would be the only accurate way to describe it. There’s virtually no positive production to be found.

Some people say that this is nitpicking, that the Red Sox have the most wins in baseball and we should just appreciate it. No, there is a major inefficiency in their roster, and one that can make this team better. Improvement is improvement, no matter the starting point.

Even more people say, it’s not like Swihart is raking off the bench. It’s true, his .133/.212/.167 is putrid. At the same time, how is it fair to look at those numbers? 33 plate appearances in the team’s 44 games makes it impossible to build up any sort of momentum or stay fresh on timing. He’s not even getting bench playing time; it’s like he’s not even there.

Then other people say, look at Vazquez’s last season. And look at Leon’s 2016. These guys have shown they can hit.

Not buying it. Leon’s 2016 .845 OPS was almost entirely fueled by a fluky .392 BABIP that was unsustainable from the start. Vazquez’s .348 BABIP last season is no more encouraging. Combined with just a 26.4 percent hard-hit rate, his .720 OPS was never going to last.

And still, Swihart sits.

The thing is, Cora has already shown the willingness to trade a glove for a bat. Jackie Bradley Jr. is starting to ride the pine after a brutal start at the plate, and Mitch Moreland’s hot bat has found its way more frequently into the lineup, forcing J.D. Martinez’s shaky defense into left field.

And still, Swihart sits.

He’s completely out of minor-league options due to the hasty blunder of sending him down so quickly in 2016, so he’s either stuck on the big league roster, or playing for a different club.

And still, Swihart sits.

We know why Vazquez is on the team. He’s wielded an elite glove in past years, the pitching staff trusts him, and last year he even showed a little something with the bat, no matter how fluky it was. In fact, this past offseason the Red Sox rewarded him with a shiny new three-year extension. A little hasty, but he had value.

With Leon, everyone knows he is on the team because Chris Sale loves him. Leon served as his personal catcher en route to his magical 300-strikeout season, so it would have been pretty hard to risk upsetting the ace to cut a backup catcher. This year, however, Cora has opted for Vazquez in seven of 10 Sale starts. Sale, by the way, is doing alright, to say the least. Maybe Leon isn’t a magical Sale-whisperer, and the lefty is just really good at pitching. Makes you wonder what Leon is doing here, then.

And still, Swihart sits.

There are a couple of ways to go about fixing this predicament, and none of them include trading Blake Swihart. At least not before he gets a legitimate chance.

One, the Red Sox DFA Sandy Leon, which would be entirely justifiable. They risk ticking off Sale for about two days before he realizes he can pitch to just about anybody, and they lose nothing in terms of catcher production. It’s hard to be worse than 2018 Sandy Leon right now.

Two, keep holding tight until Dustin Pedroia returns. When he does, place Eduardo Nunez on the disabled list, because he’s been awful in his own right, and there are still lingering questions about the health of his knee after last year’s season-ending injury. This gives the team time to play Swihart in the utility role that he was promised, giving him reps around the infield and outfield. This is probably the worse option of the two, given that his bat would certainly play better at catcher than anywhere else and given the current catcher production.

One of these two has to happen. Trading Blake Swihart, the once-top catching prospect in all of baseball, after he’s been given one real chance to play three years ago and did pretty well, is inexcusable. It’s even more inexcusable considering how bad the team has already screwed up the arc of his career. And it’s the most inexcusable while watching Vazquez and Leon act as an utter dead zone in the bottom of the lineup.

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For the first time in his unfortunate career, please do right by Swihart. He deserves more than what he’s gotten, and there has never been a more opportune time for the Red Sox to see what they have in their 26-year old catcher.