See that photo up above? That’s Blake Swihart with something you didn’t see him wear very often this year: catching gear.
Swihart was a catcher for roughly two weeks, until his defense took a nosedive and he became something of a scapegoat for the Red Sox’s pitching struggles in April. The Red Sox then decided that they needed a better left-handed bat in left field after Brock Holt disappeared following a hot start. After a stint in Triple-A Pawtucket where he refined his outfielder skills, Swihart was recalled to the major league squad on May 20.
Yet Swihart was injured just two weeks later. It’s okay, the video’s not tough to watch — Dennis Eckersley is the color guy.
And, as we’ve recently found out, that would be Swihart’s last time on the field in 2016. It’s a very disappointing end for the Red Sox’s prized catcher, especially realizing that he caught all of six games in 2016. That’s four percent of all possible games he could’ve caught in a season. Accounting for days off, we can round down the number to roughly 110 games, but still, that’s five percent of that reduced total. No matter how you look at it, that’s a failure to manage a valuable player.
But boy, does that injury look familiar. I seem to recall another player with no prior experience in the outfield taking over in left and getting hurt against that very wall:
Good lord, that’s the exact same play. The contact, the ball’s arc, the location. Everything. And you want to know why Hanley was so bad for the rest of the season? You’re probably looking at it.
So, with that potential danger in mind, why would the Red Sox roll their prized catcher out there? Sure, there weren’t many options, but it’s not like your catching depth was that great either. They didn’t know Sandy Leon would catch fire, so you were left with three guys who couldn’t hit, and you hoped the defense would be enough. As we saw with Vazquez, it wasn’t.
The Red Sox’s catching situation was already tenuous, and now the dedicated catchers that have been on the 25-man roster — Leon, Vazquez, Holaday and Hanigan — have combined for 0.3 WARP. It would’ve looked a lot worse had Sandy Leon not inherited the ghost of Babe Ruth in mid-July. There’s no way you can say the Red Sox wouldn’t have benefited from Swihart getting games behind the plate instead of sticking him in left field. The Red Sox had everything to gain by keeping him there.
Alas, here we are, with the news that Swihart needs ankle surgery. It’s easy to criticize this in hindsight, sure. The left field situation was not good, and the Red Sox didn’t have a go-to left-handed batter to lean on behind Holt. Brennan Boesch turned out to still be a pumpkin, and the Red Sox chose not to keep David Murphy. The thing is, it would’ve been better just to leave left field as it was and take the hit with a Holt/Young platoon, or just Chris Young alone. They still had an incredible offense regardless of who they threw out there, and that’s without including Chris Young hitting everything in June and July.
That’s what makes this so frustrating. The Red Sox mismanaged a valuable asset because a platooned outfielder wasn’t hitting. And while Swihart’s defense wasn’t great, that was what you use that demotion for. Have him work on it in Triple-A while you ride Vazquez’s hot streak. Once Vazquez comes down from that, bring Swihart back. He is still your best offensive option behind the plate, and even with his meh defense, it’s not like Vazquez was that much better. That’s probably not the most optimal plan, but it’s better than moving Swihart to a position he knew nothing about going in, and needed surgery as a result of that lack of experience.
Now comes the concern for his future. Sure, he’s probably going to be fine, and he has ample time to recover and be ready for Spring Training next year. But there’s just that little bit of doubt lingering. It didn’t help that the Red Sox were all over the place with their predictions on when he’d be back: First they thought it was season ending, then Dave Dombrowski expected him to return this season (and DD still wanted him in left field, ugh), then finally the dreaded second opinion option came in after Swihart’s recovery had stalled. Ankle injuries can be tricky, and it’s a good thing he won’t be rushed back and/or try to play on it as soon as possible. If there’s a silver lining, I guess it’s that it wasn’t a neck or back injury, as those can derail careers pretty quickly, and I can’t imagine how bad a recurring back injury would be for a catcher.
Thankfully, Andrew Benintendi making the best of his call-up so far might keep Swihart in catcher’s pads in 2017. But man, what a way to waste a perfectly good player’s season. Swihart should’ve never been out there in the first place, and while being a catcher isn’t the safest job, it sure as hell beats the risk of running headlong into outfield walls when you’ve never done it before.
There are right and wrong ways to handle growing pains with your young catcher, and the Red Sox wrongfully gambled with Swihart in left field. Let the players play where they’re best at, and please, let this be the end of the agonizing left field experiments in Fenway Park. We’ve seen enough carnage.