When the Boston Red Sox needed a left fielder, they turned to their super-utility man, Brock Holt. With Holt on the shelf, Boston has been relying on a combination of offseason acquisition Chris Young, and a newcomer to the outfield. Brandon Magee looks back at the history of catchers in the outfield to see what it means for the future of Blake Swihart.
When starting leftfielder Brock Holt went on the 7-day disabled list last week, the Red Sox called up a familiar face to replace him: Blake Swihart. But, unlike his last appearance with Boston, at the beginning of the season, he was not called up for duties behind the plate, but in left field. With his induction into the outfield fraternity, Swihart joins a notable group of individuals who have been catchers in the outfield.
The Catcher – Outfield Fraternity
Perhaps the most famous catcher who also played outfield with some frequency was three-time American League MVP Yogi Berra. When Berra first made the New York Yankees out of spring training in 1947, he was a utility man, logging 48 starts at catcher – with Aaron Robinson and Ralph Houk picking up 67 and 30 starts, respectively – and 20 starts as a corner outfielder. The next season, he started 65 games behind the plate – with Gus Niarhos picking up 71 starts – and an additional 47 starts in right field. At 24-years-old in 1949, Berra finally became the starting catcher for the Bronx Bombers, starting 104 games behind the plate – the only position he would play (with two exceptions – a start at 3B in 1954 and a start in LF in 1956) over the next eight seasons. Berra was brilliant over those seasons, finishing in the top four in MVP voting every season from 1950-1956. Berra would end his career in the same way it began, playing a mix of outfield and catcher. In his career, Berra played 1,699 games behind the plate and 260 games in the outfield.
Fellow Hall of Famer Craig Biggio took a different route to the outfield. Biggio began his career with the Houston Astros primarily as a catcher. Although Biggio had dabbled in the outfield in his two-season apprenticeship in the minors – playing 18 games – he played only behind the plate in his 1988 season with Houston. Biggio was the primary catcher for Houston the next two seasons, logging 125 and 113 games in 1989 and 1990. Although he also played 50 times in the outfield in 1990, the number was slashed to only two games in 1991, as Biggio logged 139 games using the tools of ignorance. Those would be Biggio’s last games as a catcher until his final season in 2007 – where he would don the gear once more for two innings. Biggio would move to another new position in 1992, second base, where he would pick up five All-Star appearances, four Silver Sluggers, and four Gold Gloves. Biggio played in 1,989 games at his third position, second base, 428 games at catcher, and 363 games in the outfield.
Two-time National League MVP Dale Murphy’s first exposure to the big leagues came as a catcher in 1976 and 1977, logging 37 games behind the plate for the Atlanta Braves. He spent another 48 games behind the plate over the next two seasons, serving as the primary first baseman in Atlanta. He was moved to the outfield in 1980, after the Braves acquired first baseman Chris Chambliss during the offseason. Though he struggled at catcher – where Murphy had developed a problem throwing the ball back to the pitcher – he excelled in the outfield, winning five Gold Gloves, four Silver Suggers, and back-to-back MVPs in 1982 and 1983. Murphy totalled 1,853 games in the outfield and a mere 85 behind the plate.
Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk, in stark contrast to Berra, Biggio and Murphy, did not field any position besides catcher until 1978 – his ninth year in the big leagues – when he logged a single game in left field with the Boston Red Sox. Fisk made occasional appearances in the outfield for the Red Sox in his final two season with the club in 1979 and 1980, as well as with the Chicago White Sox in 1981. For reasons that must have made sense to the White Sox, Fisk was given his first extensive tour of duty in the outfield in 1986 at the age of 38, playing 31 games in left field, where he was predictably poor. He had two more starts in the outfield in 1987 before retiring the outfield mitt.
Finally, there is AL MVP Joe Mauer. The catcher/first baseman/designated hitter made his outfield debut in 2011 for the Minnesota Twins, where he successfully caught all three balls hit towards him in right field. With perfection easily attained, Mauer ended his outfield dalliance and went back to catching balls at first and behind the plate.
Swihart in the Outfield
Until a few weeks ago, Blake Swihart had played a single position as a professional: catcher. His first 370 games in the Red Sox organization – with the Greenville Drive, Salem Red Sox, Portland Sea Dogs, Pawtucket Red Sox, and Boston Red Sox – all came wearing the tools of ignorance. He earned the coveted minor league defensive player of the year in 2013 while with Salem, where he caught 42% of runners attempting to swipe bases. He was even better in 2014, when he caught 46% of runners.
While Swihart has the potential to be an above-average defensive catcher, most consider Christian Vazquez an elite receiver. Given Swihart’s offensive potential – he batted .303/.353/.452 in the second half of last season with Boston – the Red Sox made a decision to diversify his positional proficiency. Although Boston has had mixed success in recent times converting players to the outfield – with Mookie Betts and Brock Holt going on the plus side of the ledger and Hanley Ramirez and Kevin Youkilis falling on the negative side – Swihart had played in the outfield during his high school career.
Early in his outfield conversion, Swihart has shown the potential to be more than adequate in the field, being charged with a single error in his 33 chances between the PawSox and the Red Sox. He has also shown that his arm can be a weapon, gunning out a pair of runners while with the AAA team.
Exploring the Possibilities
With five-man starting rotations, seven-man bullpens and the starting nine, a modern American League bench consists of only four players. While compositions differ on each team, a typical configuration of a bench would be a catcher, a corner infielder (who could play both first and third adequately), a middle infielder (who can play shortstop and second), and an outfielder. This does not give managers a lot of options when players suffer minor injuries that will keep them out for a game or two.
Not surprisingly, teams have been cultivating versatility in their utility players. The Tampa Bay Rays were one of the first teams to turn a player into a super-utility man with Ben Zobrist. When Zobrist first made it to the majors in 2006, he had played almost exclusively at shortstop. However, in 2008, he added every other position besides catcher and pitcher to his repertoire, a versatility he has kept up as he has moved from Tampa to Oakland, Kansas City, and Chicago.
Brock Holt took a similar journey. Before 2013 with the Red Sox, Holt had only played in the middle infield. Holt put third base into his bag of tricks in that season, then added the outfield and first base in 2014. His versatility earned him a trip to the 2015 All-Star Game.
Other teams have followed suit. The Minnesota Twins have Eduardo Escobar, who has played six positions over the past three years. The New York Yankees have Dustin Ackley shuffling between the infield and the outfield. The Oakland Athletics have Mark Canha manning the corners in the infield and the outfield. The San Francisco Giants have dispatched Kelby Tomlinson to second, short, third, and left this season.
However, it may be the Arizona Diamondbacks that have made their bench the most versatile in MLB. Brandon Drury has logged starts at second and third base, as well as left and right field. Philip Gosselin has had starts in left field as well as first, second, and third base this season. And, perhaps most relevant to Swihart, backup catcher Chris Herrmann has earned starts in center and right field in addition to his backstop duties. The Diamondbacks also have a versatile player in the starting lineup with Yasmany Tomas, who can play the infield corners as well as the outfield.
The benefits of this strategy are obvious. Not only is a team well covered in the event of a spate of minor injuries or a rash of ejections; they also have flexibility to choose the best option to pinch hit without worrying about leaving the defense in shambles.
While the typical team has a four-man bench, for most of the season the Red Sox have only kept three on the bench, as they carried an extra arm in the bullpen. With only Josh Rutledge (who has never played in the outfield professionally), Chris Young (who has only played in the outfield professionally), and Ryan Hanigan (whose life has always been in foul territory) on the bench, the Red Sox have had to rely on the versatility of starters Holt and Travis Shaw. Even Marco Hernandez’s ascension to the 25-man roster doesn’t truly change the equation, as he has all of two games logged in the outfield in his professional career.
While Blake Swihart is unlikely to step into the shin guards during his current trip with the Red Sox, his play in Pawtucket during the past month shows that catching is still very much a part of his future. From his first day in Pawtucket as an outfielder (April 28) until his recall to Boston, Swihart played eleven games in left field and eight games behind the plate. He even played both positions on the same day twice, playing the outfield in game one of doubleheaders on May 7 and 14 while putting on the gear in game two.
While a super-flexible bench like Arizona’s may be the wave of the future, having even a bit of flexibility on the bench can prove useful. The past has shown that there is more flexibility than normally considered in the backup catcher, and Chris Herrmann has shown that still to be the case over the past few seasons. Adding the outfield to his repertoire can only serve to help both Blake Swihart and the Boston Red Sox. And, if Christian Vazquez proves inadequate as the starting catcher, there is no reason Swihart could not be moved back into that position. After all, that is what Yogi Berra did.
Brandon Magee is our minor league expert; he has written about minor league travel, ranking prospects, a first round draft pick, and the MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.