PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Unless Sandy Leon or Christian Vazquez suffers a spring training mishap, Blake Swihart will start the season as the primary catcher at Triple A Pawtucket. And that’s probably where he needs to start.
For Swihart, the issue is getting comfortable defensively. After a wasted year in which he was moved to left field and then suffered a season-ending ankle injury in June, Swihart is a full-time catcher again. He scared a few Red Sox officials early in camp when he had trouble throwing the ball back to the pitcher, but he has worked through it.
In Sunday’s 7-3 loss to the Rays, Swihart looked solid behind the plate, save for one pitch by Hector Velazquez that got away from him. His throws back to the mound were on the mark.
Manager John Farrell said before the game that Swihart’s defense has improved noticeably after he made a minor mechanical adjustment that allowed him to frame pitches better. That progress showed Sunday.
“The last time he caught — granted three innings — there were a number of pitches he was able to get borderline strikes on and there was a cleanliness to his receiving,” said Farrell.
Farrell also commended Swihart for how he handled his episode of the yips. “He admitted it and went out to work with our coaches to solve the problem,” said Farrell.
Farrell appreciates good defensive catchers who can hit. That’s why the emergence of Leon last season was a godsend to him. If Swihart can hit and his defense improves, he could have a leg up as the future starter.
“He grabbed the attention of a lot of people at the end of 2015,” Farrell said. “Where that average plays out, we don’t know. He’s got good bat speed to handle high velocity. What you do offensively carves out playing time and how much time you’re going to be given back there. In his case, it’s always been the defensive side that needs development.”
“I’m feeling really good behind the plate,” said Swihart. “I’m much more comfortable the more I go out there. It’s been awhile since I’ve played, so it’s starting to feel right.”
Swihart walked and singled in three plate appearances Sunday.
“I feel good with the bat,” he said. “Early in the count I’m trying to see pitches.”
Striking debut by Velazquez
Velazquez allowed three hits and a run over two innings in his first spring training appearance, striking out four and walking one. The Red Sox purchased Velazquez’s contract from the Mexican League on Feb. 18.
Before the game, Farrell described the 28-year-old as a pitcher with good control who throws between 89 and 93 miles per hour. On Sunday, he had his fastball at 89 and got some swings and misses on his changeup, which is more of split-fingered pitch.
Velazquez said after his outing that the Yankees also pursued him, but his team opted to sell him to Boston because of his relationship with Sox scout Marcus Cuellar.
“I was a little nervous at the start playing in a big league game for the first time, and being in the United States for the first time. But once I got that first out, all of the nerves went away and I was able to bear down and focus,” Velazquez said through translator Daveson Perez.
Velazquez said the biggest difference between the Mexican League and the majors is “the discipline that all the players have in how they prepare and get ready for games. At the end of the day, baseball is the same whether it’s here or in Mexico. I just have to do what I’ve been doing.”
“He looked really good,” said Swihart. “He works quick, fills up the strike zone. Fastball, slider, cutter, and change. He came in with a game plan. He told me exactly what he was trying to do.”
Porcello gets started
Rick Porcello pitched two scoreless innings in a simulated game at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers. He faced nine batters and allowed two hits and a walk, with three strikeouts.
With pitching coach Carl Willis, assistant pitching coach Brian Bannister, and bullpen coach Dana LeVangie watching, Porcello threw 37 pitches to Leon. Xander Bogaerts, who batted six times, was the only player to reach base.
Porcello said he is now on a five-day routine, which lines him up to pitch Opening Day April 3 against the Pirates.
“Felt great. The priority is just executing the fastball right now,” he said.
Porcello allowed 29 hits and 17 earned runs over 15⅔ innings in spring training last year, and his season turned out pretty well.
“Every spring has been a little different. The first four or five years of my career I wasn’t coming to spring training with a guaranteed spot in the rotation. So I had to be ready much, much earlier,” he said.
“I remember throwing live bullpens and basically trying to be in midseason form at that point because I’m looking to win a job. It’s a slightly different situation now. That gives me the opportunity to take some things slow and focus on what’s going to carry me through spring and be ready for my first game.”
Steven Wright and Drew Pomeranz each threw 45 pitches in side sessions in Fort Myers and came out of them in good shape . . . Farrell wants his players to try to bunt for hits more often this season, as a way to combat shifts. Jackie Bradley Jr. attempted to do just that leading off the second inning, but was thrown out at first by Rays catcher Jesus Sucre.