Brian Bridges was still an area-crosschecking scout for the Braves in 2010, helping coach the high school Team USA team. He had a particular player he thought was special, a kid out of New Mexico named Blake Swihart. “He would be the shortstop,” Bridges said that summer as the team toured. “But we have a kid from Puerto Rico who is beyond believe.” Named Francisco Lindor.
“But Swihart is going to be a star,” Bridges said, “wherever he plays.”
The following June the Red Sox drafted Swihart in the first round of a draft that later included Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts, and announced they’d taken him as a catcher. Swihart had grown up tethered to his father’s alma mater, the University of Texas, and his agent let the Red Sox know his room at home was painted burnt orange.
Swihart finally came to visit Fenway Park weeks before the August 15 signing deadline, aware that his agents had proclaimed him unsignable. As it turned out, after working out for Gary Tuck in the bullpen, being cajoled in the dugout by Terry Francona and Dustin Pedroia, it turned into a recruiting trip, as if he were quarterback on his official visit to Austin or Tuscaloosa. When he got into the cage and took a BP round lefthanded, he hit line drive after line drive, then when he crossed over to bat righthanded, Pedroia stepped in front of the cage and yelled, “hey, this is the American League East, you have to hit balls outta here.” Swihart broke out laughing, then hit five of the first dozen pitches over The Monster and across the street.
A half hour later, he told me he was signing, as the agent was telling Theo Epstein he wasn’t signing.
So it began.
The Red Sox believed Blake Swihart was going to be a premium switch-hitting, athletic everyday catcher. He had the athleticism of a Big Eight quarterback. He was a championship level high school wrestler who, like his buddy Alex Bregman, was a shortstop. What he hadn’t really done much was catching.
Six years later, as he turns 25 the first week of April, he still hasn’t caught that much. “Look how well he played left field last season before he got hurt,” says former Red Sox GM-turned-Arizona President Mike Hazen. “He could probably be a very good player at any position on the field except maybe center field and catcher. But when he has some experience, he could be a very good catcher.”
Swihart will be 25 the first week of April. So compare his catching experience to two of the best 25 year old catchers currently in the major leagues by games started and innings caught at catcher on all professional levels, as well as his minor league percentage throwing out base stealers:
Age G Started@C Inn. Caught CS%
Blake Swihart 25 280 3275 39%
Gary Sanchez 25 433 4504.2 35%
J.T. Realmuto 25 480 5361 38%
Christian Vazquez 26 472 5265 39%
Jorge Alfaro 23 363 3526 30%
Willson Contreras 24 267 3182 33%
Start there. Swihart opened the season behind the plate last April. The team lost six games. The pitchers struggled with command. He struggled. After six games, he stopped catching, moved to left field, and while he played very well in his 13 games at the position (he actually already had a positive defensive runs saved of +1), he wrecked his ankle running into the wall in foul territory at Fenway and eventually needed off-season surgery. So the bat, the athleticism (he ran around the bases in 15 seconds with what he thought was an inside-the-park homer at Citi Field the previous August), the eagerness was wasted.
“He essentially missed a year which he began with little catching experience,” says Red Sox coach and catching professor Dana LeVangie. “Let’s be honest, a lot of American catchers develop late.” Great point. College catchers seldom develop in college because coaches don’t allow them to call pitches or think. Good athletes at the high school level don’t catch because it’s hard to develop receiving and hitting skills simultaneously.
“Everyone catches differently,” says Levangie, who discounts the obsession with framing stats “since umpires often make up their minds on a pitch before it reaches home plate.”
LeVangie had partnered with Jason Varitek. “Jason always preaches patience to the players and front office,” says LeVangie. “He understands.” Varitek was traded by Seattle because he was rough as a defender behind the plate, but Jimy Williams immediately understood Varitek’s high game intelligence, his incredible ability to relate with pitchers. Varitek would not have rated highly with framing stats, but pitchers like Jon Lester and Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez died to pitch to him as he earned two world series rings.
There is an argument that Brad Ausmus is the best defensive catcher of the last 20 years, and Ausmus has often said “the catcher’s most important job is to develop conviction in his pitcher. The most important part of catching is the relationship with the staff.” Ted Simmons, Bob Boone, Benjie Molina say the same thing.
“Swihart has that sense, that ability to relate to and build pitchers,” says LeVangie. “He’s a really good worker. He was a good wrestler with the legs that goes with that. He’s obviously an athlete. It’s unrealistic to expect him to be a polished catcher right now. We understand that. Jason constantly reminds us, ‘do not panic.’
“So we’re working with a kid who needs to learn to get more swaying motion in his feet. He needs to learn to slow down back there. To be quieter with his hands, be confident, manipulate his glove north to south and left-right, confidently make his presentation to the pitcher. It’s all part of being a good catcher, which he will be.”
The question coming out of spring training will be how much Swihart has polished his receiving. Sandy Leon came out of the minors to hit .310 and thus begins spring training atop of the depth chart. Now, he hit .216 in September and seemed to wear down, but at 27 he’d played a full winter in Venezuela and could have tired. Granted, among hitters in the bottom 10% of average velocity hit he had the highest average in baseball, but he can catch, pitchers trust him and he played well most of the 2016 season.
Then there’s Christian Vazquez. One day last May David Price was at the park at 1:30, nothing unusual about that. He was in a mood to talk about a teammate, which is not unusual. The teammate was Christian Vazquez.
Price understood that Vazquez, at 25, 13 months off Tommy John Surgery and, as had happened with Matt Wieters the previous year, had yet to regain his throwing or hitting strength, but Price got a glove, got down in a catcher’s position to demonstrate how well Vazquez presents a target and helps pitchers. “Best I’ve ever thrown to,” said Price. As he regained his strength, ditched a leg kick to led to trying to pull balls in the air as opposed to his natural style of trying to hit line drives over second basemen’s head, Vazquez batted .400 in the Puerto Rican playoffs. “His thowing is back,” says Caguas GM Alex Cora. The request was made by Cora that Vazquez play with Molina—a friend, mentor and the inventor of the nickname “the Fourth Molina Brother,” but Christian told Cora he needs to have a full spring training with the Red Sox to regain his place in the staff’s eyes. It won’t take much, because John Farrell is a former pitcher who appreciates Vazquez’s defense.
There is little doubt the Red Sox believe Swihart is going to be what they dreamed on. In time, he My be able to catch 90 games DH, play outfield, first and third. “We love the versatility,” says Levangie. “But Blake wants to be a catcher.”
“That’s what this season is all about,” says Swihart. “It’s smoothing everything out and becoming an everyday catcher. That’s what I’m intent on doing.”
So if Leon and Vazquez can create a talented pitching staff’s conviction and Swihart end up doing what Levangie and Varitek teach him, the Red Sox will have that many more options come August. The Cubs won a world series with three catchers, David Ross, Miguel Montero, and Willson Contreras, a converted third baseman/outfielder, behind the plate. Some great Yankee teams had Yogi Berra, Elston Howard and Johnny Blanchard manipulated by Casey Stengel.
“Better this situation,” says Farrell, “than having no options.”