The most recent version of the monthly “This Is What’s Going Wrong With Blake Swihart” update was especially tough to swallow this time around. Swihart, who was once the next Buster Posey, has had a real tough go of it over the last year or two. Over that time, Swihart, who seems to be consistently hurt and even more consistently mismanaged, has gone from can’t-miss prospect to barely an afterthought. From a fan’s – this fan’s, at least – perspective, the most maddening part of it all is how completely and totally avoidable it was.
Not every prospect pans out. For every Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, there are as many, if not more, Lars Andersons and Will Middlebrooks. Sometimes it’s talent related, and other times it’s injury related. None of this should be ground-breaking analysis. It’s very possible (and becoming more likely) that Swihart becomes the next prospect that just couldn’t stay healthy. The idea of a prospect not reaching his ceiling because of injury, while still frustrating, is an understandable aspect of the game. Catcher is an especially grueling position; there’s a reason why so few catchers, even at the major league level, finish their careers there. Try spending three hours a night in a crouched position, 162 nights a year, for five to ten years. It sounds awful.
Catcher is an especially grueling position; there’s a reason why so few catchers, even at the major league level, finish their careers there.
The problem hasn’t only been injuries, though. Half the battle has been the team’s a borderline-indefensible approach to managing Swihart. The organization has insisted on treating Swihart like a prospect who would grow out of the catcher position as he progressed through the minors. If you look at just his major-league numbers, you’d agree. In terms of Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA), Baseball Prospectus’ catch-all defensive metric, Swihart was not good with the Sox. In 2015, he spent 668 innings behind the plate, starting 78 games. During that span, Swihart posted a -8.7 FRAA, which you don’t need an in-depth explainer to tell you is not good.
It was after that stretch of games that the organization seemed to decide that Swihart wasn’t the answer. There were other positions where his bat could play, they thought, and in two years Christian Vasquez was going to be the best defensive catcher in baseball anyway. Swihart got exactly 52 innings to work with as the starting catcher in 2016 before the Sox made a change, sending him down to Triple-A. Through those 52 innings, Swihart hit .278/.391/.278, which is discouraging only from a power-hitting perspective. It seemed like a rash decision; for someone who flashed power all throughout the minors, it’s not inconceivable that adjusting to major league pitching might’ve taken a while (coughjackiebradleyjrcough). At least more than 52 innings. It’s not like the production from their other catchers has been noticeably better since then:
2015 (54 games): .247/.337/.328
2016 (35 games): .171/.230/.238
2015 (41 games): .184/.283/.202
2016 (78 games): .310/.369/.476 (a career year, whatever)
2017 (52 games): .241/.293/.371
2016 (57 games): .227/.277/.308
2017 (54 games): .266/.303/.350
Outside of Leon’s career year – which was actually more of a career first half – are any of those worth giving up on Swihart for?
What’s worse than the quick hook was what came next. Deciding that Swihart had apparently played his last game behind the plate, the Sox tried to fast track him back to the majors through left field. Swihart, a great athlete by all regards, gave it the ol’ college try. Then this happened:
Since then, Swihart’s been either hurt, or healthy-ish but not playing catcher. All the while, the Red Sox have trotted out the likes of Ryan Hanigan, Sandy Leon, and Christian Vasquez. And sure, Sandy Leon gets hot for a few weeks at a time and everyone loves it. It’s great. I’ve seen more two-homer games from Sandy Leon than I would have ever imagined in my wildest dreams, which is saying something because dreaming about Sandy Leon is pretty wild. And yet, despite Swihart being 1. having the highest ceiling of any catcher on the team and 2. showing signs of being a capable major league hitter, the team has refused to give him another shot.
The latest news regarding Swihart came a few days ago, when Farrell told media members that they were going to start giving him some innings at both corner infield spots. His ankle has had some setbacks in the healing process that hasn’t allowed him to catch, they said. Maybe that’s true – if so, I have like 72.5 million shares of Rusney Castillo stock that I think you’d be interested in. Playing Swihart in left, and then at first, and then soon at third ensure that the Red Sox have bungled away two things: a young prospect with a ceiling that would make you drool, and one of their farm’s more valuable trade chips. There was a time when Swihart was the centerpiece of every hypothetical blockbuster on the internet. Who wouldn’t want a young catcher with above-average hit skills, speed, and projectable defense? If the Red Sox were going to roll with Christian Vasquez, the least they could do was realize when to sell high. They did neither, and now we’re stuck wincing through Boston Globe longreads about the challenges he’s faced over the last two years. Baseball is dumb sometimes.
Photo by Kim Klement – USA TODAY Sports