The Boston Red Sox seemed like they were more than all set at the catching position heading into the 2015 season. Then before the season even began, the backstop depth chart was hit with injuries. Lisa Carney details the twisty fate of Ryan Hanigan.
Baseball careers live and die by the twists of fate. One man’s injury is another man’s opportunity. One player’s defeat is another’s promotion. This is the story of how the success and failure of other players has tangled the strings of Ryan Hanigan’s fate.
When the disappointing 2014 baseball season ended for the Red Sox, one of the few happy takeaways was the state of the catching corps. Christian Vazquez dazzled with easy style and smooth disposing of wannabe base thieves. And unlike Jackie Bradley Jr. there was little concern that he needed a minimum batting average to hold down the number nine spot in the lineup. These days, not many expect a backstop to provide big offense, so his soft hands, management of the running game and productive interactions with the pitching staff more than justified his presence.
Besides, the kid who was going to catch and hit was recently promoted to Pawtucket and not far behind him. Blake Swihart was the perfect yin to Christian Vazquez’s yang. He needed time to develop his defensive skills but he was expected to tear his fair share of leather off some baseballs. And now he had time to develop because in a surprise twist, Vazquez played half of 2014 and easily exceeded the Mendoza line (.240 BA, .308 OBP, .309 SLG) and it cost him nothing in the flashy defense department.
When 2014 ended, the backup catcher spot was in a bit of a flux as there was no guarantee free agent David Ross was going to re-sign. It was even debated whether or not the Red Sox should make much of an effort. Age and a concussion in 2013 began costing Ross consistent playing time and it never seems difficult to find a decent backup catcher. So when Ross flew out to Chicago to join Lester in Wrigley, there was a modicum of surprise but little concern for his departure.
Enter the story of Will Middlebrooks. He came to the majors in 2012 in such an explosive fashion that he was able to displace the insanely popular Kevin Youkilis without much more than a sad wave from the fanbase. But consistency eluded Middlebrooks and his frustrating plate performances mounted when pitchers discovered a gaping, exploitable hole in his swing.
On November 24, 2014, the failings of Middlebrooks and the availability of World Series slugging star Pablo Sandoval converged, and Panda was signed to man the Fenway hot corner. Soon afterward, the newly expendable Middlebrooks was sent packing to the Padres in exchange for Blake Swihart’s placeholder, Ryan Hanigan. The Sox were familiar with Hanigan, especially after his time in Tampa Bay, and again all was well with the major league catching tandem.
The disassembling of the Red Sox offseason plans happened early. During Spring Training, phrases that make a fan’s heart sink began swirling around Vazquez. “Tightness in throwing arm” and “trip to Dr. James Andrews” led down the lonely road of Tommy John surgery. It was little consolation that a quick surgery date meant a likely return for a full season in 2016. Hanigan was pushed up to Opening Day starter and Washington Nationals’ castoff Sandy Leon was acquired for cash considerations. Suddenly a flashy, brilliant catching combo looked rather pedestrian, albeit, competent.
However, after the 2015 season started, the question, “how are the catchers doing?” took a quick backseat to, “what are the pitchers doing?” Soft hands and quick feet do nothing for meatballs centered over the dish. But batters with solid swings have a lot of fun with them, and the early results showed that there was trouble with the Sox starting five. Even as they struggled, Red Sox starters were quick to point out that Hanigan was one of the few good things happening for them. If the rotation was going to straighten out, Hanigan was in line for a ton of credit.
But on May 1, Ryan Hanigan’s fate was placed into his own hands. In particular, his right one. Despite his reputation as a solid defender, there was still an easy-to-see flaw in his receiving technique: He allowed his throwing hand to stay exposed, even as pitches approached the plate. When he took a foul tip from the bat of Mark Teixeira off his right hand, he joined Vazquez on the list of “The Sox Pitchers’ Favorite Catchers On The 60 Day DL.”
The next two months of the Red Sox’s season spun wildly out of control and were punctuated with a horrid seven game losing streak in June. The reasons for it mounted like a pile of stinky laundry. Pitchers struggled in a new league. Porcello wasn’t Porcello. Hanley lost his pop. The bullpen got wailed on. Veterans who were no longer starter quality started anyway because the youngsters weren’t quite there yet. Injuries wiped out the catching depth and Blake Swihart was given the job of handling the hot mess that was the Red Sox pitching staff. It was an ugly show for anyone willing to watch.
But sometime around the end of June, the Red Sox started winning more games than they lost, and while the rest of the American League sputtered, they appeared to be moving towards playoff contention. Clay Buchholz got hot and Xander Bogaerts started hitting as expected. Swihart was holding his own with the pitching staff and hitting well enough to contribute. Hannigan returned from the DL on June 2 and after a brief stretch, Leon found himself the odd man out. Hanigan was again mentoring the future of Red Sox catching – this time Blake Swihart. The Red Sox went 6-3 and heading into the All Star break, there was talk of October baseball in Boston. But now, in a cruel twist, did fate have Ryan Hanigan training his own executioner?