Blake Swihart is doing catching drills again, popping up out of a squat to throw balls to second base and readying his body to be flung in the way of wayward pitches.
It’s arduous work, preparing to catch. But Swihart has never appreciated it more.
“It feels comfortable to me,” he said. “Catcher is my position, and doing that work comes naturally even after everything that happened. I’m glad to be doing it, trust me.”
Swihart was the Opening Day catcher for the Red Sox last season, earning a job he hoped to hang onto for years. Instead it lasted only six games.
When the Sox lost three consecutive games and allowed 21 runs, Swihart was demoted back to Triple A, then told he would be moved to left field, a position he had not played outside of a few games as an amateur.
In only a week, everything changed.
“I would have liked to have more of an opportunity; it was six games,” Swihart said via telephone from his home in New Mexico. “But that wasn’t my decision to make. I did what they told me to do.”
It got worse. After playing only 11 games in left field in Triple A, Swihart was summoned to the majors and immediately put into the lineup.
Thanks to his athleticism, Swihart handled the position capably. But his season ended on June 4 when he badly injured his left ankle trying to make a catch up against the wall in foul territory at Fenway Park.
Swihart tried to come back before undergoing surgery in August. He was cleared three weeks ago and has been working out since.
“I don’t have any regrets that we waited to do the surgery,” he said. “I wanted to try and come back and push through it. But my ankle just wasn’t allowing it.
“But I’m fully healed now. I feel great. I’m not limited at all physically. In my mind, I’ll be ready to go on the first day of spring training.”
Before he had the surgery, Swihart was told that he would again be a catcher. That came as a relief.
When he returned to the team in May, the Sox didn’t let Swihart catch or even work in the bullpen. But the position they once took away has been given back.
“Honestly, I thought of myself as a catcher the whole time,” he said. “I wanted to catch. But to hear them say it was great. I like being involved in every play and calling the game. I want that responsibility. I know I can do that job.”
Swihart has stayed in touch with catching instructor Dana LeVangie since starting his workouts. Former Sox catcher Jason Varitek, now part of the baseball operations staff, has offered advice, too.
“There’s a lot of communication,” Swihart said. “I know what I need to be doing. I’m going to spring training to compete for a job.”
But Swihart is clearly third on the depth chart for now. Sandy Leon, who hit .310 with an .845 OPS in 78 games last season, is the starter. He handled the pitching staff well and earned the trust of the coaching staff.
But Leon was 12 for 73 (.164) with 23 strikeouts in his final 23 games, counting the postseason. Prior to last season, Leon hit .187 over parts of four major league seasons with little power.
The Sox also have Christian Vazquez, a gifted receiver who caught 56 games last season in his first season back after undergoing elbow surgery.
Vazquez, a .233 career hitter, was not as fluid behind the plate last season and lacked the game-changing arm strength he had prior to the surgery.
Manager John Farrell acknowledged that the Sox underestimated how much Vazquez would be affected by the year off. The coming season will be telling for him.
Swihart, who turns 25 in April, has the highest ceiling of the group. He was a first-round pick in 2011 and soared through the minors, making his major league debut in 2015.
New Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen, who spent 11 years with the Red Sox, attempted to trade for Swihart last month and was rebuffed. Other teams also have inquired and were told he was not available.
Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski is clearly intrigued with Swihart’s potential.
“We like his ability as a catcher and think he can still be a good major league backstop,” Dombrowski said.
Patience is often required with catchers. Varitek, Swihart’s mentor, did not become a starter until he was 27. The same was true of Jorge Posada with the Yankees.
Swihart’s interrupted progress is not unusual. How he responds is what ultimately matters.
“I felt like I learned a lot last season even if I didn’t play much,” he said. “I watched a lot of baseball. I watched a lot of catchers catch. I was focused on who was catching and what they did. I watched the pitches they called and focused on every count.
“I could go back and tell you why certain pitchers did what they did. I feel like I’ll come in with a good grasp of our pitchers.”
Swihart is scheduled to attend the team’s “Winter Weekend” event later this month and plans to arrive in Fort Myers, Fla., on Feb. 1, two weeks before pitchers and catchers report.
“It’s time to build relationships with the pitchers,” he said. “Spring training is important for that. I always get there early.”
For Swihart, his personal goal is simply to give Dombrowski, Farrell, and the coaching staff pause before they select the roster.
“I want to make the decision tough on them,” he said. “I’m going there to compete and show them I still want to be the catcher. That has always been my goal.
“Last year was a hard one, but it was a learning experience. I gained a lot of perspective and the experience will be good for me in the long run. I grew as a player. Sometimes it’s the adversity that teaches you the most.”