2 months ago, Blake Swihart was hitting .163 with a .436 OPS. He was stuck to the bench, and on the butt end of Red Sox criticism that he should have been the one DFAd instead of Hanley Ramirez.
Today, Blake Swihart is a walk off hero, on an 11 game hitting streak, and a key part of the best team in baseball.
With Christian Vazquez on the DL with a thumb injury, Swihart has been given his first extended opportunity of the season, and has taken full advantage. In July he triple slashed .412/.474/.618 in 34 at bats, appearing in 14 games at the plate.
Swihart’s career track has been unique. He was the top catching prospect in baseball, and had a good stint in 2015 hitting .274/.319/.392 in 84 games. He was slated to be the teams everyday catcher in 2016, but was forced to the outfield with the return and emergence of Christian Vasquez, where he shattered his ankle and was forced on the DL for the rest of the season. He wasn’t fully recovered in 2017, and had a pretty average season in Pawtucket, only seeing 7 plate appearances in the bigs as a September call up. The time to make a decision on Swihart came this spring when he was among a handful of fringe roster players fighting for a spot without minor league options. He made the team with the help of a strong spring, and then proceeded to sit on the bench for the entire first 2 months of the season, seeing just 48 plate appearances in the Red Sox first 58 games, and reportedly asking for a trade.
But now, Blake Swihart is showing why he was a top prospect, and has found himself not only still on the Red Sox on August 1st, but a big part of a World Series favorite.
His somewhat forced versatility has made him an option to Alex Cora anywhere on the diamond. He’s played outfield in the past in 2016 and in Pawtucket in 2017, so he’s an option there, but Swihart has also appeared at first, second, and third this season, including starting a nifty double play from third on Sunday. As well as, of course, his primary position behind the plate.
Now comes the part where I tell you how and why Blake Swihart could be a near-everyday player for this team down the stretch:
Swihart isn’t the .150 hitter he was for the first 2.5 months of the season where he wasn’t playing, and he isn’t the .410 hitter he is in July, but Blake Swihart is a very capable and good hitter at the MLB level. His fly ball rate is 41%, and his line drive rate is 23.1%, those rank 2nd and 3rd among Red Sox with at least 120 plate appearances, and his groundball rate is just 35.9%, second to last among the group ahead of just Mookie Betts. He’s hitting the ball hard in about 1 of every 3 at bats at 32.1%, 7th on the Red Sox. Swihart can run as well, which is rare for a catcher. According to Fangraphs, His UBR (Ultimate base running) is .4, ranking 5th on the Red Sox and 6th among all MLB catchers with at least 120 plat appearances. His speed score is 4.2, ranking 8th among Red Sox and also 6th among MLB catchers.
These numbers are good, and when you consider who he’s competing with at catcher, it should be a no brainer. Both Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon hit the ball hard at a lower rate than Swihart, and hit the ball on the ground more than Swihart. Considering how Vazquez and Leon have given the Red Sox no value offensively this season, getting Swihart in the lineup on a daily basis at catcher is a huge upgrade for the bottom of the lineup over Vazquez or Leon, especially seeing how the bottom third of the order has been a weakness for the Red Sox at times this year.
The knock on Swihart is his defense at catcher. He’s only caught 60 innings this season, but he’s yet to concede a passed ball, and has thrown out a runner stealing in 2 of his 4 opportunities. Throughout his career, he’s thrown out 29% of base stealers, and allowed 20 passed balls in 812.0 innings. By no means elite, or at the level Leon and Vazquez are at defensively, but he’s well capable at the MLB level, and not a liability. Though the Sox’ two veterans are better defensively, Swihart’s offensive upside outweighs Leon and Vazquez’s defensive advantages. It’s a luxury for the Sox, being able to have a catcher who can hit and run behind the play to start the game, and then relieve him for a defensively sound catcher in the late innings of a close game.
He may even be better than Vazquez or Leon when it comes to gunning down base stealers:
Another fun fact
Arm Exchange Pop Time
86 0.71 1.88 Swihart
82 0.72 1.99 Leon
81 0.72 2.10 Vazquez
— Red Sox Stats (@redsoxstats) July 31, 2018
We know Alex Cora is big into metrics, and we know he’s seen these numbers, which is a big reason for Swihart’s spike in playing time. His emergence has rewarded the Red Sox for being patient with him early in the season, and he could, and should, be a critical part of this Red Sox team down the stretch and into the playoffs. Crazy, but Blake Swihart may just have the key to the city.
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