Swihart Designated for Assignment: A Confusing Move

When you begin a season 6-12, especially in a large market, fans react impulsively. If certain players get off to bad starts, people call for their heads. It is not necessarily fair, but it is the nature of a place like big-market Boston. With catcher Blake Swihart being let go after just 17 games, it indeed felt impulsive. Considering turmoil across the rotation, lack of bullpen depth, and an anemic offense, it indeed seemed time for a change. With Swihart designated for assignment, the Red Sox tried to solve a litany of issues by moving one role player, and it’ is hard to understand why.

With Swihart designated for assignment, the roster subtracted a versatile, cost-Swihart Designated for Assignmentcontrolled player yet to blossom. As Alex Cora tussled with how to use the former first round pick throughout 2018, the consensus was that he was a valuable trade chip that provided depth off the bench. The Red Sox never moved him, and it seemed to pay off in the second half after Swihart flashed his ability with increased playing time. 2019 was when Swihart was going to get a real shot at becoming the catcher of the future. Christian Vazquez would get his innings, but Swihart was going to get ample time on the diamond. But after just a handful of contests, a sputtering team decided to make a move. It just does not feel like the right one.

Swihart was never really given a clear path to a major role

With Swihart designated for assignment, it might easy to forget his origins. A first round pick, 26th overall out of New Mexico in 2011, he brought with him a Gatorade National Player of the Year award. The Red Sox drooled over his athleticism, seeing him as a steal at 26 in the first round. He surfaced in the bigs in 2015, which at the time felt a tad premature. He was solid across 84 games as a rookie, particularly showing defensive improvement as the season progressed. It was 2016 where the wheels came off. Trying to incorporate Vazquez back into the mix meant moving Swihart around the field to find playing time. After a nasty ankle injury in left field, it took him nearly two entire seasons to return to full health. From there, Swihart played spottily all over the place, and never settled in. Since the beginning of 2018, there has never been a clear spot for him, and that has now shown through with this DFA.

Removing Swihart hurts the team’s versatility

It is tough to make sense of why removing a cheap, young, versatile player was the best move. On a roster that has underwhelmed, Swihart at least provided intrigue. Despite management shifting his focus to catching in 2019, he still managed to appear at other positions. How could the Red Sox justify keeping him all last season, just to DFA him now? In comparison to other players such as Eduardo Nunez, who is relegated to the infield, why remove the guy that can move around the diamond? Sure, Swihart’s .213/.310/.385 slash line through 12 games played is unimpressive. But looking at what other role players have offered so far, it really is odd to make him the (first?) fall guy.

Perhaps there are issues off the field that the fan base does not know about. Maybe Blake Swihart was not a long term solution. Whatever the case, his days in Boston are numbered, and it remains to be seen what baseball holds for his future.

2019 MLB Top Five Catchers

Baseball’s catcher is arguably the most important position while playing the field. Also called “backstop,” catchers are similar to football’s quarterback, by which they are leaders and call the plays. They also suffer more literal welts than any other position, from regular foul tips to the rare bat to the head. The top five catchers in Major League Baseball are threats to the opposing teams both offensively and defensively.

There are just 18 catchers in baseball history that have been elected to the Hall of Fame.top five catchers
Just two of those 18 have played in this millennium: Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez. Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez has started the last five All-Star games for the American League. He is extremely durable. Since taking over as the Royals primary backstop in 2013, he has been healthy enough to play in no less than 129 games. Unfortunately, a UCL injury will sideline Perez this season. He will not make this list.

Top Five Catchers – 5 – Wilson Ramos (New York Mets) & Yasmani Grandal (Milwaukee Brewers)

Ramos began 2018 as Tampa Bay’s starting backstop. He was named as the American League starting catcher in the All-Star Game, only to miss the game with a hamstring injury. Later that month, the Phillies acquired him at the trade deadline. In 33 games with Philadelphia, Ramos went on a mammoth tear, posting a .396 on-base percentage and a .879 OPS. He is clearly one of the best hitting catchers in the game and will now be calling the signals behind home plate in Queens, New York.

Grandal is a consistent premier starting catcher. He differs from Ramos in that he is more durable and a better defender behind the plate. He has at least 426 plate appearances since being becoming a primary catcher in 2014. Grandal has upped his game in the past two seasons at the plate, eclipsing 100-hit, 50 runs and 20-double-plateaus. In the past three seasons, no other catcher has more home runs than Grandal and only Yadier Molina has more RBIs.

4 – Buster Posey (San Francisco Giants)

Before last year, Posey had started three straight All-Star Games for the National League. Posey is a former MVP, three-time World Series champion, and six-time All-Star. With that said, however, he posted his worst slash line as a pro in 2018, with career lows in nearly all major categories. Albeit, he was still named an All-Star. Posey sneaks into the 2019 edition of Top Five Catchers, but another down season could see him ousted by season’s end.

3 – Willson Contreras (Chicago Cubs)

The 26-year-old was a starter for the National League in his first All-Star Game last season. A native of Venezuela, Contreras was signed by Chicago as an international free agent in 2009. He did not blossom quickly, spending seven years in the Cubs farm system. He quickly heated up in the 2015 season for Double-A Tennessee, improving his OPS to .891 from .679 in 2014. Contreras was promoted to Triple-A to begin 2016 and posted a 1.035, which included 43 RBI in 55 games. In June of that year, he was called-up by the Cubs and took over the starting role to begin 2017. In two full seasons, he has hit 31 home runs and knocked in 128 RBI. Contreras is the least established as of the Top Five Catchers, but is viewed as one of Chicago’s most valuable assets and could position himself higher on this list by 2020.

2- Yadier Molina (St. Louis Cardinals)

Molina was the only unanimous lock of the Top Five Catchers. He has been an All-Star in 9 of the past 10 seasons and has won a Gold Glove in 9 of the past 11 years, including one in 2018. He is also a two-time World Series champion. Most impressive is Molina’s durability, playing in at least 110 games in every season during his 14-year career. At age-36, he is on his way towards being elected as the 19th catcher in Cooperstown.

1 – J.T. Realmuto (Philadelphia Phillies)

Realmuto was arguably baseball’s best catcher last season with the Marlins. He was named to his first All-Star Game and led all backstops in hits, runs, doubles, batting average, OPS, and WAR. He was traded to Philadelphia in early February for top pitching prospect Sixto Sanchez, Jorge Alfaro, a once touted catching prospect, another pitching prospect and international pool money. Realmuto’s HR, RBI, and OPS numbers have gone up in each of his four seasons. He is destined to continue that trend in 2019 with help from the best supporting cast he has been partnered with as a pro.

It’s Time to Start Playing Sandy Leon More Often

After defeating the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday, the Boston Red Sox improved to 38-17. That is the best record in Major League Baseball, and good for a 2.5 game lead in the AL East. The offense continues to flourish, and this team is giving fans every reason to be excited. Lost in all this excitement is an issue at the catcher position. Specifically, the lopsided playing time between Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon.

In 2015, Vazquez underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the entire season. This isSandy Leon when the Sox brought in Sandy Leon from the Washington Nationals. It was not until 2016 when Vazquez and Leon began their timeshare behind the plate. Leon appeared in 78 games to Vazquez’ 57. And for good reason. Leon batted .310 with 78 hits that year and provided solid production from the catcher position. His average regressed to .225 in 85 games the next year. Vazquez capitalized, notching 99 starts and batting .290, both career-highs. The timeshare worked with success, as neither emerged as the true alpha catcher.

And now, 55 games deep into the 2018 season, Christian Vazquez has logged 39 starts to Sandy Leon’s 22. But the results are not at all a reflection of 2017. Vazquez is only batting .188 with 6 RBIs and no home runs. That average comes out to a meager 26 hits in 138 plate appearances. Meanwhile, Leon is batting .254 with more RBIs (8) and home runs (2) than his counterpart.

Granted, Vazquez has proven to be more valuable behind the plate than next to it. However, aside from steals, the numbers are nearly negligible. Vazquez is 5-12 on steal attempts with a .992 fielding percentage and three errors. In comparison, Leon is 0-8 with a .995 fielding percentage and only one error.

With very similar defensive skills, the Red Sox must look at who can contribute more to the team as a whole. With Hanley Ramirez designated for assignment last week, the team must do something to sustain the offensive production that has got them to this point. That point being the best team in Major League Baseball. Sandy Leon’s ability to hit for power, past success at the plate, and relatively superior numbers this year make him every bit worthy of more playing time.

Then there’s always Blake Swihart, but that’s a different, and much more complicated, situation.

 

Christian Vazquez: Defensive Superstar in the Making

As soon as I saw the Spring Training video of Christian Vazquez shooting down Trevor Plouffe attempting to steal second base, I knew he was special, (the video is titled ‘Vazquez throws out Plouffe’ and can be found on MLB.com). They don’t just hand out the nickname “Little Yadi” to anyone. Vazquez emerged as the potential catcher of the future just a few years ago. Now, he is 26 years old, and we are still waiting to see if he can get the starting job behind the plate.

Ever since Vazquez reached the Major Leagues in 2014, it’s been clear that he struggles Christian Vazquezin the batter’s box. Vazquez has a career .233 batting-average in just 347 at-bats. Vazquez has showed signs though, as he crushed a home run over the Monster against Yankees RP Dellin Betances last year. Betances is one of the most dominant relievers in all of baseball, and the fact that Vazquez could hold his own against him and go yard attests to his hitting ability. He simply gets overwhelmed at times against big league pitching.

Christian Vazquez vs. Sandy Leon

Sandy Leon emerged last season as the everyday catcher for Boston. He found success in our lineup, producing a .310 average. Leon only made one error behind the plate last year, and threw out 42% of potential base runners. Most Sox fans will see these numbers and immediately see Sandy Leon as the starter this year too, but not so fast.

Leon was one of the streakiest hitters on the team last year. He was the best hitter on the team at times, while at other times he couldn’t make contact. When he wasn’t hitting well, he was basically a liability. Not to mention, Sandy Leon was absolutely awful in the playoffs. He went 1-10 with 5 K’s against Cleveland in the divisional series. I have not seen enough consistent production from Leon to tag him with the Opening Day start this year; I’m also not John Farrell.

The Case for Vazquez

Christian Vazquez has the most raw talent in the Red Sox catching core. He can take over a game from behind the plate with his framing, and his blocking is advanced beyond his competition. Vazquez is a defensive beast, and it is very apparent when watching him work behind the plate in-game. He is the glue that holds the Red Sox defense together. Blake Swihart has shown an inability to improve upon his receiving thus far, and some say he has caught a case of the yips this spring. Sandy Leon has been a hit or miss in all aspects of his game. Who does this leave? Christian Vazquez, (or Mini Yadi).

Vazquez is dedicated to his craft. He is ready for the challenge that awaits him. We’re talking about a guy who is not only compared to Yadier Molina, but works out with him and his brothers in the offseason. Don’t forget, Molina is only a career .285 hitter. Blake Swihart and Sandy Leon have been inconsistent producers at catcher. Don’t get me wrong, Leon belongs in the lineup against lefties. John Farrell has already come out and said that Hanley Ramirez will DH against righties this year. Does this mean that against lefties we will see Leon DH, and Vazquez behind the plate? Sure, he still needs to improve his hitting. Once he does, there is no question as to who will be catching every day in Boston.

Interview With Doug Wilson (Pudge, pt.2)

In Part 2 of Pudge, Carlton Fisk’s biography by Doug Wilson, we look at his research on the famed Red Sox catcher. By day, Wilson is an ophthalmologist, otherwise known as a eye doctor. By night, however, he’s a baseball writer. Wilson always had aspirations to write about baseball. He played in college, but said that “My GPA was higher than my batting average,” which led him to continue to medical school instead. After his two boysDoug Wilson went off to college, Wilson finally found the time to pursue his passion. He’s already published titles like The Bird: The Life and Legacy of Mark Fidrych in 2013, and Brooks: The Biography of Brooks Robinson in 2014.

Wilson said that his biggest challenge in writing Pudge was presenting both sides of the many conflicts Fisk endured in his career. Wilson didn’t want to make apologies for his conflicts, but wanted to present them from Fisk’s point of view. Fisk himself chose not to be interviewed for the biography because, as Wilson pointed out, he’s a private person and doesn’t particularly like the spotlight, which he said wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. When he was writing Brooks, Wilson grew to strongly admire Brooks Robinson, making it hard for Wilson to write objectively about him. Not interview Fisk helped him write a more objective biography about Fisk.

Wilson discussed how his research led him to view Fisk as a representation of New England. Fisk was born in Vermont, raised in New Hampshire, and grew up wanting to play for the Red Sox. According to Wilson, Fisk was the first to accomplish what he calls the New England Trifecta that every native wanted to accomplish. The first included Fisk making a basket on the parquet floor in the Boston Garden. The second was hitting a home run over the Green Monster at Fenway. The third was when Fisk punched Thurmond Munson,a New York Yankee, during a brawl in 1973. “Fisk’s pride as a New Englander was what endeared him to Boston.”

Doug Wilson’s Pudge Describes Duo of Fisk and “Spaceman”

As much as he loved Boston, Wilson talked about how it wasn’t enough for Fisk to overcome his conflicts with Red Sox executives. In 1980, Fisk asked that his 1981 contract reflect his performance, which was more money than general manager Haywood Sullivan wanted to spend. Citing one of his injuries, Sullivan quipped that “Fisk’s contract bothers him more than his arm” and mailed him a contract after the 1980 resigning deadline, which made Fisk a free agent. This disrespectful gesture led Fisk to sign with the Chicago White Sox for the 1981 season, where he finished his career in 1993. “Questioning [Fisk’s] integrity was absolutely the WRONG thing to do, and he held on those things.”

The best part of the interview was when Wilson discussed the rift between Fisk and pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee. Lee hated it when Fisk walked to the mound to talk after each pitch because it slowed the game down. This gesture led Fisk’s teammates to nickname him “The Human Rain Delay.” Red Sox 2nd baseman Rico Petrocelli, who played with Fisk in the 1970s, told Wilson that he and the other teammates got a kick out of watching Fisk walk up to the mound where “Spaceman” would grunt in frustration, turn his back to Fisk, and walk off the mound while everyone on the Red Sox bench laughed.

Look for Pudge by Doug Wilson in your local bookstores!

Sly Goes One on One with Christian Vazquez

christian vazquez

Having been a Sox fan for a long time, and made a living one way or another through the Boston Red Sox, I’ve gotten to know a lot of players through the years. In order to succeed in the Boston market, you have to have grit, be hard-nosed, tough and have a great work ethic. Those who have succeeded in Boston had that make-up. Catchers, Boston’s had some great ones—Fisk and Varitek come to mind. There were other good backstops in the last 30 years—Rich Gedman, Tony Pena, even Mike MacFarlan for a couple seasons, but we haven’t seen a good home grown catcher in a while. Until now. The baseball God’s have given us Christian Vazquez.

I’ve watched Vazquez play in Pawtucket this season and caught up with him right before he was promoted to the big club. I spoke to him after Matt Barnes’ second strong outing, and while most reporters were talking about the pitching performance, I spoke to Christian about how he was calling the game and what he felt he was doing right and wrong.

Christian told me he spends a lot of time pouring over opposing hitters stats, and sometimes calling a pitch on his gut feeling or a hunch that this guy can’t hit it inside. Vazquez said he is given a lot of freedom in how to control the game and said, “I like to keep the ball down and get my guys off the mound as quick as possible, inning by inning.” During the June 7th game, he gunned a guy down at first and held the team to no stolen bases. I watched this kid, like a sniper with precision, always have one eye on the base runner and not afraid to throw down to first after any pitch. After the game, when I asked Vazquez if his actions were instinct or instructions from the dugout, he replied,”It’s all me. Skipper gives me the green light to throw down if I think it’s right.”

When I asked him about his aggressive approach he said he worked on it over the winter in Jupiter, FL with Yadier and Bengie Molina. The Molina’s also helped him with his much improved defense and ability to block pass balls. In that June 7th game, I watched closely as not a single ball made it by his glove. The Molina’s stressed to Vazquez that you don’t get to be an All-Star catcher by allowing pass balls. “They cost runs and they cost games,” said Vazquez, adding, “I’ll do anything to get my pitcher the W.”

Christian Vazquez is just one of the many exciting new players coming through this system. This guy is my type of ball player: hard, tough and confident. He appears to be a born leader as well.

I think the next Varitek just showed up in the Red Sox locker room.