Blake Swihart Staying in Boston: What Will His Role Be?

In what might be considered by some as a surprising move, the Boston Red Sox placed Sandy Leon on waivers this week, paving the way to a more defined role for Blake Swihart on the roster. With Swihart staying, the Red Sox give the keys to a player still yet to reach his full potential. Subtracting the third catcher means Swihart can focus his attention on being a backstop, and not bouncing around the diamond. What is the reason why the club insists on keeping New Mexico native in tow? Let’s dive in.

Swihart’s impressive athleticism makes him a rare find behind the dish

Christian Vazquez, barring injury, will see the majority of the starts behind the plate in Swihart staying2018. That might be the exact fit Swihart needs to carve out a role on the club. As a backup, Swihart brings a sweet-swinging, switch-hitting bat off the bench. His versatility by being able to move around the infield and outfield presents him opportunities everywhere. Throughout the 2018 season, Alex Cora found Swihart useful as a pinch runner, which only adds to the intrigue. A backup catcher that can pinch run? Certainly a rare commodity. Swihart has always possessed a strong throwing arm, but his improving defense at the plate has encouraged the Boston brass enough to give him the job over Leon, who was adored by the pitching staff for his game calling and pitch framing ability. But Swihart’s value extends beyond his flexibility around the field.

Noticeable offensive improvements offer a glimmer of hope for Swihart

In the first half of the 2018 season, predating Vazquez’ broken finger, Swihart staying seemed like an afterthought. Trade rumors swirled, but as teams came calling, the Red Sox stuck with him, and it paid dividends. After posting a meager .167 average through mid-summer, the former top catching prospect started to discover himself at the dish. Once he earned more regular playing time, Swihart hit .277 with a .734 OPS in the second half. These numbers would have placed him among the top offensive catchers in the league should he have qualified.

After a season where Sox catchers profiled among the league’s worst offensively across the board, Swihart brought some welcome optimism for production out of the bottom third of the lineup. He also just put together a torrid spring in Grapefruit League action, slashing .414/.433/.517 with three doubles, five RBI, and a pair of stolen bases.That is a .951 OPS through 29 at bats! Spring training or not, that is impressive, a certainly a part of the reason why Swihart staying makes sense.

More regular playing time for Swihart was a gamble the team was willing to make. They know what he has in the tank, and it was enough to waive a popular clubhouse guy and a quality backstop in Leon. Swihart staying means Vazquez will have to be at his best, because one of the game’s (former) top catching prospects is ready to reemerge.

The Red Sox Catcher Dilemma

The Red Sox have some decisions to make in the off-season. For starters, they have to decide who they want to bring on board as an ace, if they want to bring on another ace at all. They have to decide where they want to look for bullpen help as well. One decision that has been flying under the radar a bit is—who will be their everyday catcher? Blake Swihart has performed well in 2015, but the Red Sox went into the 2015 season assuming Christian Vazquez would be their regular catcher with Sandy Leon as the backup.

Of course, Vazquez was lost for the season when he had Tommy John surgery back inRed Sox catcher April, which opened the door for Blake Swihart to get the majority of the reps at catcher this season. Swihart performed pretty well at the plate, but Red Sox pitchers had a 4.51 ERA when throwing to Swihart this season, while pitchers had a 3.71 ERA throwing to Vazquez last season in limited action at the end of last season. That takes into account the fact that the Red Sox had already traded away Lon Lester, John Lackey and Jake Peavy.

Blake Swihart played well offensively, hitting .274 with 5 home runs in 84 games, so I would say he has a slight edge on Vazquez in that respect. Christian Vazquez has a .240 average in 55 career games and only 1 home run so far, but Vazquez has the edge defensively over Swihart.

So, who will start in 2016? It’s hard to say, but I would give the edge to the defensive-minded catcher if it came down to one of them, which is Vazquez. However, I think the best case scenario would be to have them split time. If it were me, I would start Vazquez for the majority of the games, but put Swihart in when we need a little pop in the lineup.

Another distinct possibility is one of them, most likely Swihart, gets traded to bring in an ace or bullpen help. I think Swihart will get the short straw in a possible deal because if it comes down to it, the Red Sox will choose the better defensive catcher in Vazquez, and have Ryan Hanigan and Sandy Leon as back ups. I could be wrong, but time will tell.