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Ahead of schedule, Blake Swihart gets his chance with Red Sox

Blake Swihart was a first-round draft pick of the Red Sox in 2011.
Blake Swihart was a first-round draft pick of the Red Sox in 2011.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Blake Swihart was supposed to spend much of 2015 in finishing school, but he’s graduating early.

Swihart’s callup is being hastened because of an unexpected roster jolt on Friday night. Already down one starting catcher with Christian Vazquez lost for the season due to Tommy John surgery, the Sox’ replacement starter, Ryan Hanigan, went down for possibly months due to a fractured knuckle on his right pinky finger.

The timing is particularly difficult, as Hanigan was not only playing well but asserting a growing leadership role with the pitching staff. He was a central figure in a meeting of the pitchers prior to Wednesday’s game, articulating the need to break patterns that permitted their opponents too much comfort. His absence will be felt.

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“It’s tough. He was just settling in. I think we were all starting to get into a good rhythm with everything, not only on the field, but his voice in meetings, his voice about hitters, his experience, his knowledge. It’s something that we can’t overlook,” said bullpen and catching coach Dana LeVangie. “But it’s a challenge that we’ve got to face, and we’re going to deal with it.”

The Sox will deal with it in the immediate future by calling up top prospect Swihart, at a time when the 23-year-old still has some rough edges to sand.

In spring training, even after the loss of Vazquez, the Sox deemed Swihart not ready for prime time. He was optioned to Triple A about halfway through the Grapefruit League schedule, and the team didn’t reconsider when Vazquez was injured.

Swihart, who didn’t become a full-time catcher until after he signed with the Sox after being drafted in the first round in 2011, has made immense strides as a defensive catcher. He has the tools, athleticism, intelligence, and leadership abilities to project as an above-average defensive catcher, a long-term potential All-Star who can impact the game both at the plate and behind it.

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Still, that’s the long-term view of his potential. More immediately, the team wanted to see Swihart make further gains as a game-caller. There were instances in spring training where he labored to get on the same page as his starting pitcher, most notably in a start against the Braves with Clay Buchholz, and the Sox felt he’d benefit from a chance to work more in Triple A to figure out how to align his pitcher’s stuff and strengths to what he was seeing in hitters’ swings.

This year, Swihart showed improvement in that aspect of his game, even if he was viewed just over a week ago as having a bit more work to do.

“I think we’re starting to see him recognizing that a little bit more, reading swings, understanding where these hitters are at, and making the attack from them. You can obviously have a pitch plan on paper. That’s nice. But these hitters, they adjust. They’ll go through phases,” said PawSox manager Kevin Boles. “Being able to adjust on the fly, in game, the information sitting right in front of you, we’re starting to see that. He has aptitude. He definitely has that.

“The window that we had last year, he’s very athletic but there still remained quite a bit to work on,” Boles added. “There still is, but he’s showing a little more polish at this point.”

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Still, with Hanigan down, the Sox summoned Swihart, even recognizing that he’s an incomplete product. Unlike fellow PawSox catcher Humberto Quintero, Swihart is on the 40-man roster. Moreover, he’s off to a solid offensive start, hitting .338 with a .392 OBP and .382 slugging mark.

Whereas Swihart would have been a backup to Hanigan, thus limiting the available playing time needed to further his development, he likely can assume a majority of the catching duties in tandem with Sandy Leon (perhaps after an initial adjustment period of something close to a 50-50 playing time split).

The Sox wanted him to get more time in the minors. They were open to the idea, particularly after Vazquez went down, of calling him up midyear, but Hanigan’s injury unquestionably hastened his timetable by perhaps a couple of months. There will be a transition that includes bumps.

“We’re going to deal with it. Matt Wieters had to deal with it in the big leagues. Jason Varitek had to deal with it. We’ll deal with it. We’ll be OK,” LeVangie said before it was known whether Swihart would be called up. “We’ve got some pitchers who know how to pitch. I don’t think there are going to be any big problems. We’ve got the coaching staff that’s able to help and guide him along.

“There’s going to be an adjustment period no matter what or when – whenever it is. Whoever it might be, it’s going to be a challenge, but I think we’re a team willing to face it and fight it and deal with it,” he added. “You don’t gain any experience until you get here and do it. No matter how good you are, how old you are, when you get here as a catcher, there’s going to be a bit of an adjustment – learning the league, learning the players here.”

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In some ways, Swihart’s limited Triple A experience isn’t far from the norm.

Swihart turned 23 last month. He’s played 282 games in the minors, including 36 with Pawtucket. Of the 21 catchers who caught 100 or more games in the big leagues last year, their average age at the time of their first big league summons was just under 23. One-third of them (7) spent fewer than 300 games in the minors – though all but one of those players was a college catcher – and a majority (11 of 21) spent 40 or fewer games in Triple A, with three skipping the level entirely.

Minor league experience of major league catchers
Minimum 100 MLB games in 2014
Age at callup Minor league games AAA games Big league role at callup
Devin Mesoraco 23 448 139 Sept starter
Carlos Ruiz 27 495 125 Backup
Travis d'Arnaud 24 515 86 Starter
Wellington Castillo 23 360 67 Backup
Buster Posey 22 135 65 Starter
Derek Norris 23 489 58 Starter
Jason Castro 23 215 57 Starter
Kurt Suzuki 23 314 55 Starter
Mike Zunino 22 96 52 Starter
Chris Iannetta 23 220 47 Sept starter
Dioner Navarro 20 356 40 Sept reserve
Yan Gomes 24 255 37 Util/reserve
Yadier Molia 21 297 37 Backup
Miguel Montero 23 456 36 Sept reserve
Tyler Flowers 23 370 31 Sept reserve
Russell Martin 23 392 23 Starter
Jonathan Lucroy 23 346 21 Starter
Salvador Perez 21 340 12 Starter
Brian McCann 21 304 0 Starter
Jarrod Saltalamacchia 22 380 0 Starter (C/1B)
Alex Avila 22 151 0 Starter
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference.com
Alex Speier/Globe Staff

Is Swihart ready to join the ranks of catchers who immediately helped their clubs win? That’s uncertain, which is part of the reason why the Red Sox are open-minded about the possibility of trading for a veteran catcher to stabilize the team’s situation behind the plate and buy more development time for Swihart in the minors.

Still, as much as this scenario represents something other than Plan A, it’s intriguing to note that the two catchers to whom Swihart is most often compared because of his standout athleticism behind the plate – Buster Posey and Russell Martin – both hit the ground winning.

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Based on a strong track record as a winning presence behind the plate in the minors, which included a 9-1 record in postseason games, some around the Sox believe that Swihart is capable of making the rapid adjustments needed to help the team win.

“You couldn’t ask for anybody better back there. Any time I’ve played with him, he’s always been great,” said outfielder Mookie Betts, who was teammates with Swihart in High A Salem in 2013 and again in Double A Portland and Triple A Pawtucket in 2014. “I can’t judge who’s ready and who’s not. But I think, Blake being Blake, me just knowing him personally, if he does get an opportunity, he’ll be ready to go and he’ll make the best of it.”

Undoubtedly, more of the game-calling responsibilities will fall to the Red Sox coaching staff and the pitchers themselves. Meanwhile, mindful of the transitional challenges that face hitters as they advance from Triple A to the big leagues, the Sox will have limited offensive expectations for what Swihart will do, particularly given the work he’ll be doing with the pitching staff.

All of that said, circumstance dictates that this is Swihart’s time. Whether or not his training is complete is immaterial at this point. It’s time for the switch-hitter to show that he’s capable of continuing his winning ways at the next level, even as he continues to learn.

“Is he ready? Who knows?” said pitcher Justin Masterson. “Maybe he has to be.”

A winning learning curve
Team records with Blake Swihart catching, 2013-15
Level Swihart catching Others catching
2015 AAA 11-4 3-5
2014 AAA 9-7 7-5
2014 AA 55-26 17-18
2013 Hi A 54-47 22-17
129-84 (.606) 49-45 (.521)
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference.com
Alex Speier/Globe Staff

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Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.