Whenever Blake Swihart bumps into Jason Varitek, he knows to have his mental notebook ready.
He was only 19 years old when the Red Sox drafted him 26th overall in 2011, and for all the praise he received coming out of Cleveland High School in New Mexico — not to mention the $2.5 million signing bonus he was given, the largest ever under former general manager Theo Epstein — he had played catcher for only one season.
With 15 years, 1,488 games, and 12,166 innings behind the plate, Varitek’s baseball knowledge nearly spanned Swihart’s lifetime.
So when Varitek was named special assistant to current general manager Ben Cherington, Swihart knew he would have an encyclopedia at his fingertips.
Swihart said there isn’t a question Varitek can’t answer. They spoke for the first time in spring training.
“Whenever we talk, I always pick his brain,” Swihart said. “We talk situation, talk pitch count, talk this, talk that. That guy’s just a book of knowledge and, I mean, anything and everything, he knows exactly what he’s talking about. I’ve never seen a guy so baseball-smart before in my life.”
Through 56 games with high Single A Salem this year, Swihart is hitting .285 with two home runs and 24 RBIs, earning him a spot on the Carolina League all-star team. But beyond that, he’s grown as a catcher, impacting as many games behind the plate as he has in the batter’s box.
He’s been durable, playing a league-high 55 games at catcher. He’s become the kind of catcher that forces base runners to second-guess themselves, having thrown out a league-high 24 of 59 runners who’ve tried to steal. But what’s been most important, he said, is the chemistry lesson’s he’s gotten as he’s learned how to manage the pitching staff.
“Just learning what the pitchers want to pitch,” Swihart said. “They all have different ideas and different strengths and just developing and learning what the pitchers want and learning how to be in aspect of the game and every play. I just feel like I’ve improved on that a lot, and I just need to keep improving on that. That’s probably the most important thing to me right now.”
In two seasons in the organization, Swihart said he’s gotten more comfortable.
Being a high pick with a large signing bonus, he said, brought obvious pressure. But it wasn’t as hard as dealing with the pressure he put on himself.
“I feel like I play better when I’m nervous and I have big situations,” he said. “I usually get nervous about my first at-bat every game. I don’t know. I like it.”
In 92 games with Single A Greenville last season he hit .262 with seven home runs and 53 RBIs. He didn’t truly find his rhythm until August, during which he hit .320 with one homer and 11 RBIs in 14 games.
This season he’s had 14 multihit games and is tied for the league lead with five triples.
“I was putting a lot of pressure on myself, just trying to live up to what I felt like I had to live up to and now I’m just going with the flow and having fun with it. Now it’s a lot easier.”
After starting this season 2 for 18, he went on a tear in May, hitting .324 and driving in 11 runs.
Toward the end of May, he and Varitek met again.
“You’ve just got to feed off a guy like that, take everything in that he said and learn from him,” Swihart said. “Everything he says has meaning, so you’ve just got to take it in. You can never stop learning and improving in this game.”
Three to watch
Garin Cecchini, Portland: In five games since being promoted, the 22-year-old third baseman has hit .294 with two multihit games. He leads all Sox minor leaguers with a .348 average in 67 games between Salem and Portland.
Xander Bogaerts, Pawtucket: His average has dipped since being moved up in the middle of the month, but his power numbers have soared. After hitting six homers in 219 at-bats with Portland, Bogaerts has four in 52 at-bats with the PawSox. Three of his eight RBIs came Tuesday.
Mario Alcantara, Lowell: In his first two starts for the Spinners, the 20-year-old righthander fanned 10, gave up just four hits, and walked just two over 10 scoreless innings.Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.