Swihart had a rocky tenure plagued by injury and ineffectiveness, but the Red Sox deserve their fair share of blame for how he turned out.
Big news dropped yesterday in the world of Red Sox baseball. Blake Swihart, once considered to be the top catching prospect in baseball, was designated for assignment. It ends a four-year stint at the major league level that has been marred by injuries and disappointment.
As a prospect, Swihart’s calling card was as an athletic catcher who was expected to really hit. He was never expected to be anything more than average defensively, but you can live with that as long he provides significant offense at a position that is generally devoid of it.
As I am sure you are well aware, it never worked out for Swihart. His first year in 2015 was fine, hitting .274/.319/.392 for a 93 wRC+ in 309 PA, though his defense was quite poor. He barely lasted a week the following season before the Red Sox decided they had had enough of him behind the plate. It was not just the defensive metrics or the scouting reports, either. There were reports that Red Sox pitchers genuinely did not like throwing to Swihart.
The fact of the matter is that leading a pitching staff is really hard, especially for a young, inexperienced player who did not excel at catching. They decided to give Christian Vázquez the full-time job, a player who was seen as the polar opposite of Swihart in the sense that he was strong defensively — as Puerto Rican catchers tend to be — but not so much with the bat. Since then, catching duties have primarily been split between Vázquez and Sandy León.
I can understand wanting to expand Swihart’s versatility by trying him out in left field. He was certainly athletic enough to handle the position, and in today’s ludicrously short benches, having a player who can play multiple positions in addition to catcher is certainly valuable. Isiah Kiner-Falefa is a great example of this! Unfortunately, an ankle sprain he suffered in left field essentially ended his season. Even though it was three years ago, this Red Sox mistake began his path to eventually being DFAed.
Swihart certainly had his injury struggles, and yes, he was not very effective at the plate with a career line of .255/.314/.365, but it is hard to put that all on him. The Red Sox never gave him consistent playing time, which is crucial for a young player’s development. Perhaps the experiment would have worked out better on another team, but there were few opportunities for Swihart to get consistent playing time on a team with good, consistently healthy corner outfielders, and better back-up options for the infield, such as Brock Holt.
I am not the first one to point this out, but it really is amazing just how much more teams value defense at catcher than offense. The Red Sox were the best team in baseball last year, and they were involved in a tight division race through the All-Star break, yet insisted on playing Vázquez or León everyday. They combined to provide the worst offense in baseball by a team’s catchers, and it wasn’t even close. Chris Davis has gotten plenty of attention lately for his struggles at the plate, but León himself went through his own miserable stretch offensively last year.
I have always been high on Swihart, and I have advocated for increased playing time for him on more than one occasion, even going so far as to once advocate for my favorite team to acquire him. However, even a more pessimistic evaluation of Swihart would be hard pressed to see him as a worse option than the Vázquez/León tandem, who combined have a career .276 wOBA. Defense matters, of course, but the offensive gap here is significant, and that is before considering Swihart’s upside.
It is no secret that Red Sox starters have been struggling pretty badly so far this season. They rank dead last in the league with a horrific 7.86 RA9, and their peripherals are among the worst in the league as well. At most, you can’t put more than a very small part of that on Swihart, and León is not going to fix it by himself. Likewise, Chris Sale lacking his personal catcher is not why his fastball velocity was down 4 mph compared to his average last year, and León was not the reason why Sale regained that lost velocity last night.
It’s just one outing, but Sale wasn’t great last night, giving up four runs in five innings. The good news is that he struck out six, but his command was off, as he had trouble hitting his spots, which is what lead to the four runs. That has been his problem more than anything in his three previous outings, too, and a catcher is not going to fix that no matter how good he is.
The Red Sox are down 7.5 games in the standings. The team really better know what it is doing here, because their offense has been poor so far, and playing Vázquez or León each night is basically punting a lineup spot. I am sure there is value behind what catchers do behind the scenes, but it is unlikely to fix what is ailing this rotation. Whatever that behind-the-scenes value might be, I can’t believe that it is worth playing an offensive cipher.
Regardless of how you feel about Swihart, it is hard to argue that the Sox did not do him wrong in 2016, and then continued to fail to put him in the best opportunity to succeed. Furthermore, prospect analysts have been vocal about the fact that he had been mishandled since the day he was drafted. He is the classic change-of-scenery guy, and if the player that scouts believed he could be is still in there, his next team has the best chance of bringing it out.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.