The Boston Red Sox have been aggressive with promotions under the ownership of John Henry, which has led to some rookie struggles lately. The plan for Blake Swihart was to give him another year of seasoning in Pawtucket, but injuries to Christian Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan have forced him into the major league spotlight. Brandon Magee has kept us up to date on the progress of the Red Sox farm system and shown us how deeply emotional our shared fandom can be. Now he gives us a look at the latest prospect to make his way to Fenway Park.
Coming into spring training, the plan for Blake Swihart was to be the primary catcher for the Pawtucket Red Sox for, at least, most of the season. While there may have been discussions about bringing him to Boston on opening day after the Christian Vazquez injury, the Red Sox made Ryan Hanigan the starter and traded for Sandy Leon to be the back-up. Now, however, the plan has changed. With Ryan Hanigan out indefinitely with a broken knuckle on his pinky finger, the Sox have promoted Swihart from the PawSox.
While Blake is one of the top prospects in the game, the Red Sox expectations for Swihart are likely similar to what their expectations were with Vazquez before his Tommy John surgery. Pitching and defense first, with hopes that the offense steadily improves.
By all accounts, the defense is major league ready. The Red Sox tabbed him as their minor league defensive player of the year in 2013. Baseball America tabbed him as the defensive catcher of the year at the end of 2014. Pawtucket manager Kevin Bowles says of Swihart: “He’s intelligent, shows that he can follow a pitch plan, shows that he can read swings and there’s a lot of positives to him.”
Portland Manager Billy McMillon has also shown praise for his handling of the pitchers: “If a pitcher is a little erratic, [Swihart will] run out there and take a meeting and try to get him back on track. Those things, they don’t show up in the box scores, but we appreciate them because he recognizes the flow to the game has kind of slowed down and he can go back and get them back on track. It’s refreshing when you see the young guys take charge and take command and take control of a game.”
Swihart’s arm has become one of the main weapons in his defensive arsenal:
As a 20 year old in his first professional season for the Greenville Drive, he threw out 31% of the 87 runners that attempted to steal. The following season for the Salem Red Sox, he nabbed 42% of the 106 runners who attempted to swipe a base. Between the Portland Sea Dogs and the Pawtucket Red Sox last season, Swihart caught 46% of those attempting to steal. Swihart was also starting to earn a reputation; only 68 baserunners made the attempt.
The evidence is mounting that pitch framing is an incredibly valuable skill for a catcher. Additionally, it appears that the Red Sox have begun placing extra emphasis on the ability. Unfortunately, PITCHf/x is not available in the minor leagues, so the data to evaluate Swihart’s pitch framing is not available. However, the video evidence we do have shows that Swihart is very quiet behind the plate and may have the skills necessary to excel in this aspect of the game:
While defense may be Blake’s calling card, it is not the only weapon in his arsenal. Swihart’s swing is a little long, but he gets the head of the bat through the zone quickly with above-average bat speed. He also has excellent hand eye coordination which helps him to square up the ball, even on a pitch low in the zone like in the following clip:
He stays back on the ball and keeps his front shoulder in until his wrists start to roll over as the bat connects with the ball. Swihart has a little bit of loft at the end of his swing and consistently hits the ball hard leading to plenty of line drives in the gaps.
Swihart has shown steady improvement in his offense in his three full minor league seasons. In his first season, he batted .262/.307/.395 for the single A Greenville Drive. Two seasons later, he batted .300/.353/.487 for the Portland Sea Dogs in the AA Eastern League. His power, in particular, started to develop last year as he clubbed 13 HRs and 26 doubles in the regular season.
Swihart excelled in the Pawtucket Red Sox’ run to the Governor’s Cup Championship last season, reaching base in each of the five games he played in, going 6/18 with a double and 3 walks (.333/.429/.389). He has started this season in similar fashion, batting .338/.392/.382 with three doubles and six walks in 18 games played.
Blake also is still athletic enough to swipe an occasional base (stealing eight in nine attempts in 2014) and hit an occasional triple (four last season).
As we have seen with Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts, young players will have struggles as they adjust to the majors. However, the promotion of Blake Swihart has the chance to be successful as he has all the tools to be the Red Sox starting catcher for the foreseeable future.
In his first MLB game on Saturday, Swihart went one for three with a walk and a run scored against the Yankees at Fenway. The following game on Sunday night baseball, he went 0-4. Swihart has struck out a combined four times in his first two games.