Blake Swihart

Should the Red Sox Make an Upgrade Behind the Plate?

The most confounding aspect of Boston’s wholly disappointing season to date is the number of confounding aspects to it. The starting rotation couldn’t get out of the third inning for a while. As soon as it rounded into form the offense disappeared. The bullpen has been mostly fine, except when the offense and the starter show up on the same day. It’s always something, but it’s always something different it seems. Except at catcher.

The Red Sox have received very little from the catching position this season, both offensively, which was at least somewhat expected, and defensively. A position that was supposed to be strong has been weak. Come to think of it, that’s kinda the theme of the team’s season.

This isn’t exactly a new problem either. In 2014, the Red Sox got very little production out of catcher. The AJ Pierzynski experiment was a disaster except for teaching me how to spell “Pierzynski” and even that offers debatable utility at best. Boston was forced, through their own doing, to rely on 50 games each of rookie Christian Vazquez and extreme-non-rookie David Ross, with seven games of Daniel Butler thrown in assumedly for spicing up purposes. As it turned. out Vazquez wasn’t much at the plate but he was a sight to behold behind it. So much so that the Red Sox opted to leave him as the starter for 2015 and spend their time and effort upgrading other positions.

After losing David Ross to the Cubs in free agency, Boston added Ryan Hanigan from San Diego in a trade for Will Middlebrooks. Hanigan was set to back up Vazquez. Boston was all set. Catching would be a dominant defensive position for them in 2015 with a bit of on-base percentage thrown in. This would also help break in a new starting pitching staff.

Then, before the season began Vazquez went down with an elbow injury. This thrust Hanigan into the starters roll. That wasn’t so much a problem as what it created down the line, namely the need for another catcher to replace Hanigan as backup. The team acquired Sandy Leon from the Nationals for the role.

Then, 23 games into the season, Hanigan went down with an injury. Despite previous statements saying they wouldn’t do it — always a bad way to begin a sentence — the Red Sox called up Blake Swihart and thrust him into the role of co-starting catcher. This is where things get particularly bad. Swihart has played 28 games and hit a ghastly .207/.240/.293. If you think he’s been getting better, well, not really, no. His June slash line through Wednesday’s games, is .143/.182/.381.

In the meantime, Sandy Leon has given Boston a .180/.268/.200 slash line through 20 games. Bizarrely, five teams have actually received worse offensive production at catcher this season, and it could easily be seven as the Twins and Angels are barely ahead of Boston’s decrepit pace. In that way what Boston has been through isn’t as bad as it might appear at first. However, when you remove Hanigan’s on-base percentage (.354) the Red Sox may just have the worst hitting catching tandem in baseball at the moment and for the indeterminate future.

Defensively things aren’t as bad, but that’s only because that’s a tough standard to reach. By Baseball Prospectus’ numbers both Swihart and Leon are negative pitch framers, and Leon is one of the worst in baseball. Leon has thrown out five of eight runners attempting to steal, which is fantastic, but as a team the Red Sox are at 30 percent, or exactly league average. On a team with many questions, catcher has been perhaps a forgotten one. But that’s not to say it’s not been important. As a part of both a struggling pitching staff and an offense struggling to score runs, the catcher position has been part of the problem rather than the solution.

How to solve that problem is more difficult to figure. Down in Triple-A Pawtucket, Humberto Quintero and Matt Spring are both having tough seasons offensively and as such neither looks to be much of a salve for Boston’s woes. Hanigan is due back at some point this season, perhaps after the All-Star break, and if he’s able to return to form he’ll solve one of the two issues the Red Sox are currently starting at catcher. That is far from assured, however.

The Red Sox are therefore in a bit of a bind. They can wait until Hanigan returns and stick with the status quo, but as the team keeps losing, that seems less and less like an acceptable answer, especially considering Hanigan is a fine catcher but this isn’t like waiting for Buster Posey to come back from the DL. We’re talking about Ryan Hanigan. What to do with Swihart seems problematic as well. Perhaps the team’s scouts and baseball operations believe that Swihart is on the brink of a breakout, or at least of approaching adequacy as a major league hitter. It’s possible improvements are occurring and better production is on the horizon. I’m not a scout nor a hitting coach but from my view of the stats there isn’t much to recommend this viewpoint. Swihart isn’t hitting the ball particularly hard, he’s not getting unlucky, he’s not walking, and he’s striking out a ton. Considering his limited time in Pawtucket it sure seems like Swihart would be better off playing more frequently and learning the lessons of Triple-A baseball, but that leaves the major league squad with only Leon.

It’s easy to say the Red Sox need to improve at the catcher position but much harder to say how. The team could make a trade, but the impending return of Hanigan and the fact that he’s under contract next season as well, the return of Vazquez next season, and the assumption that at some point in the near future Swihart will be a productive starting catcher for the Red Sox all complicate such an effort. Further, there aren’t many useful half-year rentals available on the trade market, if any. The Marlins cut bait on Jarrod Saltalamacchia a month ago but the Red Sox weren’t interested in bringing him back, even on the veteran’s minimum salary he would have received. This remains puzzling, defensive issues and all. Despite his struggles in all phases of the game this season, he had far more upside than Leon possesses, and his presence would allow Swihart to return to Triple-A. Veteran catchers with histories of being valuable on cheap deals aren’t easily available, but the Red Sox chose to continue with what they have, and now short of a trade, they’ll have to live with that decision.

Ah! A trade, did you say? Yes, the team could attempt to make a larger deal, for say Stephen Vogt from the A’s who are almost certainly out of contention, but the wisdom of dealing significant prospects to upgrade a position that figures to upgrade itself in the next season or so is certainly debatable. What’s more, it remains to be seen whether or not this 2015 Red Sox roster is worth spending more to improve on, or if the team would be better off selling at the deadline and playing for 2016. The only thing certain right now is the Red Sox catching situation has been, through any number of factors, a mess, and remains an impediment to the team making a run in the American League East.

Top photo by Tommy Gilligan/USA Today Sports Images

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