Wednesday, July 3, 2013
Catcher Swihart has tools to be great
By Jon Meoli, SoxProspects.com
On the evening of June 6, 2011, the first night of the MLB first-year player draft, the Red Sox selected a slight New Mexico prep star named Blake Swihart with the 26th overall pick and called him a catcher. Midway through his second full season behind the dish, Swihart is showing a skill set that, if maximized, could help change what all of baseball calls a catcher.
The 21-year-old, switch-hitting Swihart has shown strides both at and behind the plate this year with High A Salem. His steady offensive production earned him a starting spot on the Carolina League all-star team last month, but what the slash lines don't show is that his defense is developing on par with his bat -- which is Swihart's main concern.
Salem Red Sox catcher Blake Swihart was named to the Carolina League all-star team last month.
"You have to be a catcher first, and if you get a hit, it's pretty much a plus right now," Swihart said. "That's how our catching coordinator [Chad Epperson] tells us to look at it, and that's how we have to look at it. Our job right now is to be one with the pitcher and get the win for him, so you focus on catching first and if you come up and get a hit, that's just a bonus."
Pitcher Michael McCarthy, who worked with Swihart last year in Greenville and this year in Salem before a promotion last month to Double-A Portland, said his former roommate and batterymate has improved markedly.
"I think his composure in general [has improved], the way he handles the game behind the dish is night and day," McCarthy said. "His pitch calling has been great -- he's really worked with the pitchers to get familiar with that, and he's starting to think more like a catcher and a pitcher. That's been a huge attribute that has made him a far better catcher -- and an all-star."
Swihart, a fierce competitor who grew up playing football and basketball along with baseball, admitted it was difficult adjusting to the idea that his achievements at the plate -- to that point, the one true way to measure success -- weren't terribly important.
"I was definitely more upset when I didn't get hits last year, but now I'm feeling a lot more comfortable with every aspect of the game, and my hitting has improved because of that," he said.
The comfort is showing in his first Carolina League campaign, to the tune of a .276/.358/.433 batting line with a pair of home runs and 26 RBIs. That line is even a bit misleading: After a 2-for-18 start to the year, he has hit .292/.376/.453 since April 13, a line that was brought down by a recent 0-for-10 skid. The power-suppressing Carolina League will likely keep him below last year's pace of seven home runs, but he has shown improvement in nearly all other aspects of his game. While adjusting to catching on a two-days-on, two-days-off schedule with Greenville last season, Swihart hit .262/.307/.395.
However, the good but not great statistics hide what makes scouts and evaluators fascinated with Swihart. A natural right-handed batter, Swihart hits just as well statistically, if not better, from the left side as he does from the right. This season, he is hitting .275 from the left side, .279 from the right, with 20 of his 23 extra-base hits coming as a lefty.
"I don't have too many at bats right-handed, but right now I feel comfortable both ways," he said. "Switch-hitting is just a bonus, if you can get that lefty-on-righty matchup or righty-on-lefty, it just helps you and gives you a natural advantage."
His swings differ on each side -- his hands are a bit higher from the right side -- but Swihart's quick hands, compact swing and ability to get backspin on the ball point to a hitter whose line-drive singles and doubles could turn into home runs if he adds bulk to his frame.
Both Swihart's switch-hitting and his experimentation with catching stemmed from a willingness to elevate his game and expand his potential. Swihart was mostly a shortstop in high school, though he practiced as a catcher at the urging of his summer coach. That same coach suggested he try switch-hitting as well.
Swihart said that at the time, he realized those skills could take him higher than he ever expected going -- though his future skill set always gave him a bright future.
Having an athletic, right-handed hitting shortstop, which Swihart to that point was, is a blessing. But under perfect circumstances, that talent can be maximized into even more. Florida State found a way to turn one -- Giants catcher Buster Posey -- into a franchise backstop at the big league level.
But even with Posey's success, there seems to be no mold for Swihart. He initially didn't know where to turn for examples when he began working behind the plate full-time.
"I didn't know who to watch when I first started catching," he said. "I just learned what they were telling me to do. I just do my own thing."
Jon Meoli is a senior columnist at SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonMeoli.