The Kids Are Alright Part One: Blake Swihart

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There’s not much more exciting in baseball than a top prospect breaking through to the big leagues. The player is often seen as a new hope for any team and has a lot of expectations placed upon him right away. Rick Rowand takes a look at Blake Swihart to see how he’s progressing in his first season in Major League Baseball.

As the weather heats up, so has the Boston Red Sox version of the early Seventies power trio Beck, Bogert and Appice. Betts, Bogaerts and Swihart, who average just under 23 years of age, were deemed “untouchable” by the Sox front office earlier this year when trade rumors involving Cole Hamels were swirling around the internet.

Blake Swihart, the old man of the group at 23 years and two months, entered June hitting just .225/.257/.268 in 71 at bats with three doubles and 21 strikeouts. Swihart was slated to spend the season in Pawtucket learning his craft, but that all changed on May 1st when starting catcher Ryan Hanigan broke a knuckle on his throwing hand and the Sox were forced to call up Swihart to be their starter.

As a rookie catcher, Swihart’s job has been to learn the pitching staff, to learn how to call a game and to familiarize himself with the opposing teams’ hitters. Any offense would be a bonus. And the offense started out rough. Swihart went 4-for-32 in his first nine games, striking out a dozen times. While he’s still learning on the job, Swihart is starting to show the fans why he was one of the top twenty prospects in baseball coming into this season. Since May 16th, Blake has hit safely in 19 of 25 games and has not had any consecutive hitless games.

In fifty plate appearances in June, Swihart has hit .261/.320/.413 with four doubles, one home run and 11 strikeouts. This has raised his overall numbers to .239/.282/.325. For catchers with a minimum of 120 plate appearances (31 overall), he’s ranked 17th in batting average, 22nd in on-base percentage and 22nd in slugging percentage. His increased production does not appear to be driven by luck as his May BABIP was .320 and in June it is .324. So what has changed?

Quite a bit in fact. He has raised his walk percentage from 4% to 8%. Which puts him a tick above the league average of 7.6%. His strikeout percentage has fallen from 28% in May to 22% in June. League average is 20.2%. Usually when a player starts hitting the ball better, their line drive percentage increases, but his has actually dropped from 28% to 20%, just under league average. That decrease is also reflected in a lower percentage of hard hit balls in June it has been 20% compared with 33% in May. The percentage of soft and medium hit balls has increased as well – SHB from 23.5% to 31.4% and MHB from 43.1% to 48.6%.

He’s also hitting the ball to all fields at about the same percentage in June as he was in May. He could be trying to use the same approach that Xander Bogaerts used earlier in the season. His May/June % are: pull 45.1%/45.7%, center 29.4%/28.6%, opposite field 25.5%/25.7%.

Because of the point in the season we are in, these data points are just trends that need to be followed as the season progresses. We really can’t be certain which of these months is the real Blake Swihart. However, it could be a positive sign that Blake is beginning to live up to the promise he showed in his minor league career. He was, after all, one of the top rated prospects in baseball.

*stats courtesy of fangraphs.com

**stay tuned for part 2 and part 3

Rick Rowand has written about Mike Napoli’s struggles, John Farrell’s disappointing season, Brock Holt’s cycle, and David Ortiz’s adjustments.

Follow Rick on Twitter @rrowand.

Check out Damian Dydyn and Ian York’s article about rookie struggles.

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