A Potentially Unmatched Masked Duo
by Jim Silva
Not many teams can say that they have two good catchers – even fewer can say that they have developed two good catchers who are major league ready. But the Red Sox are rich in the catching department and even have one man behind the dish who might be a star in the making. In Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez, the Red Sox might eventually have one of the best catching tandems in the majors. The 25 year old, Vazquez, started the season on the disabled list and it looked like Ryan Hanigan would be the stand-in who would be the odd man out as soon as Vazquez and Swihart were healthy at the same time, but as we approach the trade deadline, that isn’t exactly how it has played out. What can Red Sox fans look forward to from their catching crew?
Swihart was one of the youngsters everyone was calling Dave Dombrowski about when the Red Sox were struggling and needed pitching. Dombrowski wisely held onto Swihart – good young catchers are much harder to find than pitchers these days. What makes Swihart even more valuable is that he is under team control for several more years. The young catcher was ranked in the top 20 by everyone who bothered to rank prospects in 2015. The Red Sox fan base can look forward to several years of watching Swihart hit because hit is what he does best. His major league audition looked similar to his minor league career hitting numbers. His minor league slash line of .286/.340/.427 shows Swihart to have a good hit tool with decent, although not world beating, power and good plate control that doesn’t result in many walks but does result in moderate strikeout numbers. Last season in 309 plate appearances he managed a slash line of .274/.319/.392 while striking out 77 times. Swihart has shown the ability to adjust and grow at each level so it is reasonable to expect his numbers to improve as he adjusts to the league and matures. At 24 he is young for a catcher so it is reasonable, even for objective non-Red Sox fans, to expect more from him offensively.
Defensively, Swihart doesn’t have to be great to have value because he can hit for average and knock doubles enough to put him in the top five or so catchers in baseball. Although last season he only managed to throw out 28% of runners attempting petty theft (below the league average of 32%), his minor league career numbers show that he can throw, as he has nailed 39% of base-swipers since 2012. Swihart did allow the second most passed balls in baseball at 16 and cost his pitchers some runs with his framing (-7 DRS from his framing alone), but baseball people who watch him report that his physical tools and intelligence are cause for optimism that he will become at least an average defensive catcher.
Christian Vazquez is the yang to Swihart’s yin. He is a defensive stud with a canon arm who saved the Red Sox 13.7 runs with his tremendous pitch framing skills. If the Red Sox had traded Swihart, they’d have been just fine running Vazquez out there to save games with his arm and glove instead of his bat – that is until he blew out his elbow and submitted to Tommy John surgery. If he can return to form (and if pitchers can, why not a catcher?) then he will continue to provide All Star quality defense when Swihart is catching a breather.
As to Vazquez’ ability with the bat, it is reasonable to state that he won’t be an automatic out, but that he should probably bat in the 9th spot in the order on a good offensive team, which the Red Sox are. His minor league slash line is inflated by one monster season in the Sally League (high single-A) where he hit 18 homers, batted .283 and slugged .505. To date, his slash line in the minors is .267/.346/.393. There isn’t a lot of pop in his bat but there is some ability to get on base via the free pass including a season in double-A where he struck out 44 times while walking 47 times. With only 52 games at triple-A there is likely some development left in his bat. Even if he only hits .240/.308/.309 like he did in 2014 in his major league debut, with his arm and glove he is still valuable – especially as the short end of a catching pair that includes Swihart.
The guy the Red Sox planned to pick up the slack while Vazquez rehabbed his arm is veteran and old guy (especially for a catcher) Ryan Hanigan. Hanigan has been someone’s backup catcher since 2007 and at the age of 35 is nearing the end of a good career. Hanigan has always had the ability to get on base as his career OBP of .352 will attest. But he achieves that robust on base percentage without the benefit of power or speed. He does it by walking more than he strikes out (career: 241 walks to 237 k’s), making him an anomaly in this age of free swingers. He also possesses a good arm according to his career caught stealing rate of 37%. The career backup saved the Red Sox 1.3 runs with his framing skills so with Vazquez out, the Red Sox calculated they would be fine until Hanigan is forced back down to Pawtucket to await the zombie apocalypse or an injury to one of the Red Sox catchers.
Ah, the best laid plans… Yeah, it didn’t work out quite the way the Sox had planned. Vazquez came back and resumed his role of stud defensive backstop. His arm hasn’t quite looked the same yet. Runners have tested him a bit and while they haven’t made him look like a clown back there, his caught stealing rate is down to a merely mortal 35% at the time of this article. In other words his defense is just fine, thank you. His bat, on the other hand, has looked insufficient. His walk rate is down, along with his batting average and on-base percentage, while his strikeout rate is up. It is still early, especially for him, as he had to work his way back from surgery, so his off-season wasn’t the same as his teammates’. Still, the Sox have to be at least a little worried. And that’s not the least of it!
Blake Swihart in left field. Yes, Blake Swihart, the 24 year old potential star catcher was playing mostly left field in a platoon with Chris Young when he ran into a wall and severely sprained his ankle. Even if Swihart doesn’t look like the second coming of Muddy Ruel behind the plate, why would you mess with his development as a catcher? Before his call up, he had thrown out 39% of base thieves. While he wasn’t hitting quite as well in the bigs as he had last season, there were some good signs that he was showing maturity as a hitter. Swihart had increased his walk rate while his strikeout rate had decreased a bit. Even though his average is down, his OPS is up because of the walks and three triples. I doubt anyone is seriously worried about Swihart’s stick so unless he is destroying the Red Sox pitching staff, why is he running around in left when Christian Vazquez is hitting under .220? Before going to the DL, Swihart had caught six games while spending 13 games in left (two more games than he had played in the outfield over his entire minor league career). It might take a while for Swihart to get back on the field, and it will be interesting to see how the Red Sox use him when he is healthy again. Is it possible that his misadventure in left that landed him on the DL was caused by inexperience?
So now the Red Sox are starting Vazquez and using Sandy Leon as their backup because Hanigan is on the DL. Leon is only 27, but is seeing action in his fifth major league season this year with Boston. Leon is a weaker hitting version of Vazquez. He is the ultimate catch and throw guy behind the plate with a major league career slash line of .216/.291/.264 but a caught stealing rate of 45%. His hitting numbers look like a pitcher’s slash line while his throwing numbers look like Vazquez. The pairing of Vazquez and Leon matches top notch defense with mediocre to awful offense – and maybe the Red Sox can afford to give up one spot in the batting order as an automatic out, but they have Swihart who is anything but an automatic out. The Red Sox have some interesting decisions to make about their catchers.
Having catching depth like the Red Sox have is a luxury in this age where apparently nobody wants to put on the tools of ignorance, and it means that at least at that position, the Sox will almost assuredly be ahead of the game. If desperation forces the need to trade a young player, either Vazquez or Swihart should bring back value and still leave the Red Sox in a better spot than most teams in baseball. The franchise that has featured Rick Ferrell and Pudge Fisk behind the plate is now set to watch two potentially great catchers, Swihart and Vazquez, try to find themselves. The player who isn’t anointed starter either gets traded or helps the winner of the battle extend his career behind the plate. The Red Sox seemingly can’t lose in this situation although I suppose they could screw it up somehow (like moving Swihart to the outfield). Oh, did I say that out loud?