Welcome to BP Boston’s Roster Recap series! Over the next four months, we’ll be breaking down every player on Boston’s 40-man roster and many of their top prospects in order to provide a comprehensive overview of the Red Sox roster’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as what we can expect moving forward. There’s no better time than the offseason to review the best (there was some best!) and worst (there was a lot of worst!) of the past year in red and navy. You can see previous editions of Roster Recap here.
Normally, when a team has to bring a fourth catcher onto the 25-man roster, it’s not a good sign for either the team or the catcher. After Christian Vazquez tore up his UCL in March and Ryan Hanigan broke his finger mid-season, the Red Sox were left with Sandy Leon, who, despite his good glove, is as much a legitimate offensive threat as I am. Despite fears that he would be in the majors too early, the Red Sox called up Blake Swihart to shore up their catcher depth, and to satiate their 20-year addiction to switch-hitting catchers. Once he got up to speed, Swihart gave us one of the most memorable moments of the 2015 season:
He wasn’t the top prospect in the Red Sox system last year for nothing.
What went right in 2015?
After he weathered a first half in which he had to become accommodated to major league life very quickly, Swihart went off in the second half, especially in August, where he posted a .373/.439/.492 triple slash and did things like that inside-the-park homer up there. While he tailed off a bit in September, he still accomplished feats like this:
Oh, and did I mention he’s got wheels? Because he can run. Just look at his first hit.
Even though he hit well, the concern was that Swihart’s defense would be a work in progress. In the small sample size we got from him this year, he was solid from a defense standpoint. He doesn’t have a Vazquez-esque arm, but Swihart was very capable of throwing out opposing runners like, say, Ben Revere, who earns professional contracts on his speed alone. His defense wasn’t spectacular, but combine it with his hitting and you’ve got a pretty good, pretty young catcher with a lot of potential.
What went wrong in 2015?
His first 130 PAs were very pedestrian. I’ve already hand-waved that to adjusting to the majors, but a .241/.279/.323 triple slash isn’t good, acclimation or not, and he got more starts because 1. Sandy Leon was somehow worse and 2. Swihart needed the playing time. One issue that persisted throughout his 309 PA was his ineffectiveness from the right side. All those home run highlights I’ve embedded? Swihart was hitting lefty. Swihart as a right-handed hitter slashed .225/.303/.300 in (SSS alert!) 80 PA. There’s not enough there to draw conclusions, but how well Swihart swings against left-handed pitchers will be key next year.
Outlook for 2016
Given ample time, Swihart will probably be above-average relative to other catchers in the majors in 2016. Hell, he was already average in 2015 – his TAv of .241 sat a point below the league average for backstops. However, there are two obstacles that might get in his way.
One is Christian Vazquez. He underwent Tommy John surgery to mend his torn UCL, and though his recovery has been slow, a healthy Vazquez might steal starts from Swihart later in the season if he’s not relegated to rehab at Pawtucket. As it stands right now, Swihart is most likely the starting catcher come April, barring a miraculous improvement from Vazquez.
The second is his issues batting right-handed. While Swihart was barreling up the ball consistently as a lefty – 29.5% line drive rate – he’s been underwhelming against LHP from what we’ve seen. He is a tad bit more patient on that side of the plate, so if we can see better contact and a reduction of his 54% groundball rate, he could take a big step forward.
Of the three prodigal Bs the Red Sox have on their roster, Swihart is probably the most unheralded and underrated of the trio, especially since the other two happen to be Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts. He’s got just as much potential as the other two, and although you didn’t hear his name as much, don’t be surprised if you start hearing it all the time come next season.
Photo by Mark L. Baer/USA Today Sports Images