FORT MYERS, Fla. — If you squint, it remains easy to imagine Blake Swihart as a rare sort of catcher based on his ability to make steady, resounding contact that sends line drives all over the field, and his unusual impact on the bases.
There is a reason why, when the Red Sox signed Yoan Moncada to his record-setting bonus in 2015, most publications had the Cuban ranked behind Swihart as a prospect. There is a reason why, after Swihart’s strong performance in the second half of 2015, evaluators projected him as a player with the potential to become an All-Star.
It can be easy to forget all of that. Swihart, after all, was out of sight in the Red Sox catching equation in 2016, banished to the minors after just six games when the team decided it was better with a more defensively advanced option behind the plate in Christian Vazquez. Between that demotion, his return to the big leagues as a left fielder, and his season-ending injury suffered at that position, a future that seemed bright behind the plate became clouded last year.
“Let’s not avoid the pink elephant in the room here,” said Red Sox bullpen coach and catching instructor Dana LeVangie. “He basically lost a season behind the plate.”
That lost time, in turn, played into the Red Sox’ decision Monday to option Swihart back to Triple A. This spring, he once again showed offensive ability that was at times head-turning, hitting .325/.386/.400. He also made some mechanical adjustments behind the plate in terms of how he presented a target to his pitchers and how he presented pitches to umpires.
“Blake in particular had a very strong camp,” manager John Farrell said. “He showed improvements defensively and swung the bat very well. You love him as a person, and he’s a hell of a talented player.”
But some rough edges of his defensive game remained evident as well. The need for further defensive development, coupled with the fact that Swihart has minor league options remaining — unlike Vazquez and Sandy Leon — made Monday’s decision seem inevitable for most of the spring.
“He needs to go out and play a lot, play when he’s feeling good and feeling tired, and learn how to be more consistent that way,” LeVangie said. “He’s not a finished product, but he’s making strides to become more effective back there.”
So what does Swihart, who turns 25 next week, need to work on? LeVangie said he shows effective receiving skills when catching with nobody on and less than two strikes. But when runners or two-strike pitches in the dirt create a need for an “action stance,” he’s still working on his technique.
There is work to be done in controlling the running game (opponents were 9 for 11 stealing with Swihart behind the plate this spring). Moreover, the Sox believe that his need for refinement blocking pitches led to reluctance to call for such offerings in two-strike counts, resulting in more predictable pitch sequences for batters.
“When we had him in the big leagues, his ability to follow game plans and read swings was pretty good,” LeVangie. said “But if you know you’re not the best blocker but you’re making strides to become one, you’re going to be less willing to call those pitches in the dirt to set up something else.
“He might call for one pitch more than the others. Other teams are eventually going to know that. When he finally gets to the point where he says, ‘Give it to me in the dirt,’ and the guy on the mound trusts that, then he’s taken that step.”
Right now, the Sox believe that Triple A — away from the glare of Boston — is the best place for Swihart to work on such skill development. While it may seem as if Swihart’s development is taking a long time, the team believes it has that luxury, given the presence of Leon and Vazquez.
LeVangie pointed to catchers such as Jorge Posada and even Jason Varitek as models for Swihart’s development, noting that when both eventual All-Stars arrived in the majors, their bats were ahead of their defensive work. Over time, the gap closed — and for Varitek, his defensive game eventually came to surpass his offense.
The Sox believe that Swihart is closing the gap, that he made technical improvements this spring. Earlier this month, Swihart described himself as feeling great.
“I think this is probably the best I’ve ever felt catching,” he said.
He talked about how much he learned while watching from the sidelines last year, examining what catchers were calling, what sequences Red Sox pitchers liked to employ, analyzing what umpires did and did not tend to call.
He expressed confidence that his knowledge of the game improved even in his lost year.
But now that he is again playing, he can focus on the physical work needed to determine how much he can advance his game behind the plate, and to define his future in that role. His work-in-progress present creates unknowns, though it doesn’t necessarily diminish his potential.
“If a kid is willing to get better, if he has the desire to get better and is willing to learn, he’s going to get better,” LeVangie said. “Blake could catch in the big leagues right now, and our team would still be good, but there’d be hiccups, occasional hiccups.
“Are you willing to deal with those hiccups? It’s a little tougher to deal with that in Boston. I think he could do it. But we have two other guys right now who, fundamentally behind the plate, are ahead of Blake.
“It’s a numbers thing right now. But it’s a really good option that we have Blake Swihart, who’s built his stock back up to where it needs to be for him and us. We’ve got a good thing.”