BOSTON — Blake Swihart has been praised for his athleticism his whole career, yet he hasn’t started anywhere but designated hitter this season. The Red Sox’ catching corps of Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon had the worst OPS in the majors (.417) entering Thursday, but Swihart had not seen a single frame behind the plate until the Red Sox trailed the Rangers 11-5 in the eighth inning Thursday. He wasn’t even asked to pinch run this week, when, after catching 13 innings and playing poorly on defense, the slower Christian Vazquez singled and represented the potential tying run.
Swihart, 26, is older than Mookie Betts. Swihart is not a journeyman lucky to have a job. He’s a first-round pick with a ceiling unknown, someone who's been agreeable to position changes, perhaps to the detriment of his career arc. He's a prospect who would be getting playing time on other big league teams.
"Some days are easier than others. Some days it’s tough," Swihart told NBC Sports Boston. "But you know, I just got to keep my head up and keep doing what I’m doing to stay ready."
Even though he is on a winning team, Swihart would have reasonable grounds to walk into manager Alex Cora's office and ask for a trade. He hasn't.
“I don’t think that you do that,” Swihart said. “That’s my agent’s job to call and do that, you know? Me personally, the player, this is all I know, is the Red Sox. I know there’s other teams that probably tried to call and there’s stuff moving. But I’m not the type of person that’s just going to walk in and say, ‘Hey, I’m not playing, so get rid of me.’ I mean, I want this team to win, and when I’m here, I want to be able to help contribute any way I can.”
Swihart’s agency declined to comment.
The situation is bizarre. Major league depth options are rarely stashed on a major league roster, outside of the occasional Rule 5 draft pick. Swihart cannot grow if he does not play, and the Sox’ refusal to catch him until Thursday with Marcus Walden on the mound sent a message elsewhere: they feel his receiving ability is so far from ready that he's not worth even a sniff as Vazquez and Sandy Leon perform horribly at the plate. (Vazquez has had some woes defensively, as well.)
“I think they do want to move him, just not for 75 cents on the dollar,” one scout said. “And right now, if you can’t get him on the field, you can’t expect full value."
To some around the game watching Swihart’s progress, the fact he was the starting DH and then got behind the dish Thursday in Arlington was, at best, a fine coincidence.
It's showcase time. The Rangers would be a fit for Swihart after showing interest in him this offseason, if not more recently. More eyes from any team on Swihart at this point could be useful, assuming the Sox are not going to budge from the Vazquez-Leon tandem. Because the clock is ticking. Dustin Pedroia’s expected return within a month time might force the Sox’ hand sooner rather than later.
"I hope Swihart only signed a lease through May," another scout said.
The question boils down to this: Where does Swihart stand defensively? Everyone knows he’s working on his receiving, after converting to catcher when he was drafted in the first round in 2011. He lost time to a move to left field and then injury in 2016, followed by continued health troubles in 2017.
“I feel like if I get thrown back there I’m going to be ready,” Swihart said, speaking before the trip to Texas. “I think I’ll be just fine if I do. You know, I have confidence in myself to do it.”
He’s doing a ton to prove that readiness in the ways he can.
One of Chad Epperson, the Sox' catching coordinator, or Jason Varitek is always around Fenway, for the benefit of Swihart and all the major league backstops. As Epperson put it, Swihart is working his ass off.
“I think you get best when you’re playing the game,” Swihart said. “Me not playing, I’m still tired every day when I go home, because I do so much extra work. I’m not just catching. Like, I’ll catch for an hour and a half and then I’ll go and do infield for 30 minutes. And then outfield drills. And then I’ll go hit extra, and hit off a machine. Like, I’m tired by the end of the day. I think I’m getting a lot of work in, good work. But I think you get better playing the game."
The daily work catching in lieu of game action might add up to a half hour. That may sound like a small amount, but it's not. There are 8-10 minutes doing the throwing program with a pitcher, and then 20 minutes, perhaps, with a focus on a skill. They won’t work on blocking and footwork on the same day, typically. Epperson and Varitek know the season is long, and there's a lot to process mentally and physically. Swihart goes to the same meetings the other catchers do. He watches the game calling unfold from the bench as well.
“Just the receiving part is probably the biggest thing for me,” Swihart said. “It’s probably receiving and learning to anticipate the ball in the dirt. So we’ll do a bunch of stuff: we’ll have 10 balls, and [Epperson or Varitek] might throw some in the air, and he might throw some in the dirt. I react to it. Because you’re anticipating a ball in the dirt. Then, if it’s in the air, you got to catch it the right way so you get a called strike and get a good presentation to the umpire.
“If you’re in a good position to receive the baseball, you put yourself in the best position to get down and block too, you know what I mean? Every catcher has a trigger with their glove. If their trigger’s off or late, then they’re going to be late to the ball too."
Not every franchise keeps a catching instructor around the big league team with the frequency the Red Sox do. Former minor league catcher Dana LeVangie, now the pitching coach, carried double duty when he was the bullpen coach, handling the catchers as well. LeVangie still works with them, but the pitchers are his priority. Varitek and Epperson have daily conversations about their work with the catchers, to keep the messaging unified between two different voices that alternate visits.
In the past, Swihart’s mechanics could get long.
“Leaving spring training, we had a plan to continue to work on some direction with his footwork when throwing,” Epperson said. “Making sure that we stay in tune with the throwing program. Obviously, with [Swihart playing] multiple positions the arm speed’s different, making sure we’re on top of that. But fundamentally, you know we’re really getting him in a good base, and he feels comfortable."
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Epperson said Swihart has really good hands. Swihart catches some side sessions thrown by starters, and he’ll occasionally catch pitchers warming up in the 'pen, as well.
“It’s about getting the relationship with these guys and understanding what each and every one of these pitchers’ ball does,” Epperson said. “Some sliders are a little sharper than others, some velos better. So that’s where he’s taken the time and working on it, and taking the initiative to go out and catch the sides."
Nonetheless, side sessions are just side sessions. When LeVangie was asked what one or two areas behind the plate Swihart could use the most improvement, he pointed to the elephant in the room.
“It wouldn’t be fair for me to say that,” LeVangie said. “Because realistically, he needs to play. If somebody wants him as a catcher, he needs to play. He needs to play through failure, he needs to play through success, he needs to get comfortable. And the only way to do it is to play. And for him to figure it out behind the plate, the only way to get more comfortable is more reps. He can get better in every facet.
"So can Sandy, so can Vazqy. Every day it’s a new learning process for them. Just because, as soon as you take things for granted, something will slap you in the ass. That’s how their job is."