When the Boston Red Sox lost catcher Christian Vazquez to Tommy John surgery last spring training and backup Ryan Hanigan to a fractured finger May 1, rookie Blake Swihart was thrust into the major league spotlight. He performed admirably.
But now that Vazquez is healed, rehabbed and ready to go, Boston’s catching situation is a lot more complicated.
Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told reporters at Red Sox Winter Weekend that Swihart will be the No. 1 catcher, so it’s the 23-year-old’s job to lose. However, Dombrowski did say that things could change, and if they do, it’ll be because of Vazquez’s stellar defense.
Vazquez isn’t as strong as Swihart at the plate, but he really shines behind it. The 25-year-old has drawn comparisons to Yadier Molina. His average pop time is around 1.7 seconds, while Major League Baseball’s average is around 2 seconds. Vazquez’s defensive runs saved above average was at 6 in 2014, and his caught-stealing percentage was a whopping 52 percent compared to the league average 27 percent.
In short, the guy is darn good.
That doesn’t mean Swihart is a bad defender. He’s average to good in many aspects, and he still has some developing to do. But Swihart is known more for his offensive ability.
In 55 games in 2014, Vazquez had a .240 average and a .617 OPS. Swihart had a .274 average and a .712 OPS in 84 games in 2015, and he definitely progressed as the season went on, even finding his power stroke. When you want runs on the board, you want Swihart, hands-down.
But what it really comes down to is whether you put a greater emphasis on defense or offense with catchers. Swihart certainly isn?t a bad defensive option, but Vazquez is a really special player when it comes to his work behind the plate. And plenty of teams don?t rely on catchers to be their star bats, especially because it’s a rare quality. For example, Russell Martin had a great defensive season in 2015 but batted .240 in 129 games as the Toronto Blue Jays’ starting backstop.
Pitchers seem to like working with both Swihart and Vazquez, but the latter has drawn rave reviews. Red Sox starter Rick Porcello lauded Vazquez’s pitch-framing last spring, and Vazquez is the kind of catcher who can make starters better with his defensive skills. Swihart still is developing on that front, as he wasn’t a full-time catcher until the Red Sox drafted him in 2011.
Still, there’s no reason Swihart can’t develop into a great defensive backstop. And the Red Sox’s catching “problem” really isn’t a bad problem to have. If anything, Vazquez could serve as a high-quality backup if Swihart breaks out, or else the two could end up splitting time, which would preserve each catcher’s health and potentially prolong their respective careers.
There’s also a chance Hanley Ramirez will falter defensively in his first season at first base, at which point the Red Sox could determine that Swihart is a good fit there or as a designated hitter in 2017.
Whatever the case, the Red Sox are in a desirable position, even if it’s complicated right now.
Thumbnail photo via Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports Images