The Boston Red Sox came into 2015 with a pretty good plan for the catcher position. Christian Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan would split time in the majors, while their top prospect would get the final polish needed in Pawtucket. The plan got blown up when both catchers were injured. Ian York takes a look at how rookie catcher Blake Swihart has done after being called up before schedule.
Blake Swihart didn’t become a full-time catcher until after he was drafted by the Red Sox in 2011, at the age of 19. Although he was considered a promising prospect, there was no intention of bringing him up to the big leagues for more than a cup of coffee until 2016 at the very earliest, with 2017 being a more likely date for his full season debut. However, a series of injuries to the Red Sox catchers left them desperately short-handed, and he was promoted to MLB in the beginning of May. Now, with over 50 games under his belt, the desperation choice is looking like a qualified success.
Although Swihart hit well for a catcher in the minors, the expectations for catchers are set relatively low. The bar for a 23-year-old rookie catcher called up to the majors at least a year early is even lower still. With that in mind, Swihart’s overall .614 OPS – while not very good – is in line with realistic expectations. More importantly, Swihart has shown some signs of improving as he begins to adapt to major league pitching. Using a rolling 10-game window to look at his OPS compared to his season average (the red line), we can see that after an abysmal couple of weeks at the start of his season, he has at least become consistent, and shown hints of being a fairly good offensive catcher:
Although he is a switch hitter, Swihart has been considerably stronger against right-handed pitchers (OPS .636) than left (OPS .562), with his biggest weak spot being breaking balls as a right-handed batter. In these charts, the de facto strike zones from 2014 (shown from the umpire’s viewpoint) are shown as the grey polygons, the overall pitch distribution in each subset is shown as the green contours in the background, the number of pitches that are not balls (called “strikes” for simplicity) are represented by the size of the outer circles, the number of hits by the size of the inner circles, and the average number of bases per hit by the color of the inner circle:
As a right-handed batter, pitchers throw him breaking stuff below and outside the strike zone, and he frequently chases it (as shown by the large empty circles outside the zone). By comparison, he handles fastballs reasonably well, and with some power from both sides.
In spite of his short catching history, Swihart seems to be about a league-average defensive catcher, to the extent that we as onlookers can judge. He has thrown out 32.4% of base-stealers, in line with the AL average of 31.7%. At first glance, he is far worse than league average for passed balls, with 11 (2.6/100 innings, far higher than the average of 0.76/100 innings). However, almost all of those passed balls (9 of them) came on days when knuckleballer Steven Wright was pitching, and should therefore be deeply discounted.
Finally, we can look at catcher framing. Using the same approach we described before, Swihart’s strike zone (compared to other catchers) looks like this so far in 2015:
In these images, blue regions show areas around the strike zone where Swihart is less likely than the average catcher to get a called strike, while red regions represent the areas where he is more likely to get a call his way. (The charts are from the umpire’s viewpoint, so that batters would be standing in the middle of the two charts.)
Although the left-handed batter’s zone shows some moderately intense red areas on the inside and top of the strike zone, they are roughly balanced out by the blue areas on the outside edge of the plate, where Swihart is less likely to get strikes called than average. For left-handed batters, Swihart has effectively shifted the strike zone slightly up and inside, compared to most catchers. Around the right-handed batters’ zone, most areas are fairly subdued, indicating little difference from average, with the most intense colors being dominated by blue.
Overall, these charts (and the numbers behind them) show that Swihart is almost exactly neutral as a pitch framer, averaging -0.13 extra strikes per game compared to average (which is very similar to other estimates).
If Swihart was a well-established major league catcher, or if he was an elite prospect entering the majors after a complete seasoning in the minors, he would probably be considered a moderate disappointment. For a young, inexperienced and incompletely trained rookie hauled up on a day’s notice, league-average defense combined with slightly lower than league-average offense is definitely a pleasant surprise. It remains to be seen if he will be in the Red Sox lineup next year, or whether he will be back at Pawtucket working on breaking balls from left-handers, but he should have nothing to apologize for this season.