When news broke a little after noon on Tuesday that the Red Sox were shipping out Blake Swihart, finally resolving their three-catcher logjam by cutting loose a former top-20 prospect, there was anger above and beyond the general din of a 6-11 start. This was panic. This was the pitchers demanding a favorite. This was Dave Dombrowski, only scorched earth remaining whenever he leaves an organization, choosing now over next year.
Eighteen hours later, a 6-11 record now 6-12 after Chris Sale’s improvement from “I’ve never been this lost” was just to “This is flat-out embarrassing,” it feels a little less pressing. Especially since, on reflection, this wasn’t a real tough movie to solve before it ended.
Blake Swihart has a .679 OPS in the majors and a .615 in Triple-A. His pitchers had no particular affinity for throwing to him. He has 28 starts at catcher since the start of the 2016 season. Last season, he most frequently caught Brian Johnson, Drew Pomeranz, and Hector Velazquez. He never once caught Sale.
Tuesday was a relief. The arrival of the inevitable. Your parents finally getting the divorce they’ve been threatening for years that might finally yield happiness for all parties.
“It’s definitely tough, [but] I’m kind of happy for him,” Mookie Betts said after the 8-0 drubbing in the Bronx. “New beginning. Hopefully he can go somewhere and play every day.”
“By no means [am] I saying we’re putting this on Blake,” said Dombrowski, now the architect (with his fire-sale Florida Marlins) of the two worst defending-champion starts in recent memory. “It’s just our guys haven’t pitched very well. There’s a combination of factors. … At this point, really, there’s only one move you can make.”
Leon, who started the year in Pawtucket on Dombrowski’s deciding vote, caught Sale on Tuesday. The fastball touched 98. The stuff got 12 swings-and-misses, most coming on a fierce-looking slider. Unfortunately, the Yankees touched 95 mph on 10 of the Sale pitches they clobbered and Leon needed eight pitches to strike out twice and meekly pop to second. His soothsaying probably had less to do with Sale’s moderate improvement than pitching coach Dana LeVangie’s.
“We had a conversation in the outfield as he was doing his throwing program. He sort of told me what he’s feeling, and then I felt that it was time to talk about what I’m seeing,” LeVangie said on Monday. “It made sense to him. It felt good. He felt normal. He threw his bullpen after that and he was excited about it. He felt like the ball was coming out of his hand like it should.”
This isn’t about them, though. This is about Swihart, a lower-profile version of the same song we heard all spring about Jon Lester. Five years on, the team now admits it bungled contract negotiations with the lefty who should’ve never left, an idea that still stings even after the roster built in his wake won 119 games and spoiled us for life.
They bungled Swihart as well, even if we’ll probably never get the soundbite. Because, frankly, there might not be the sort of success elsewhere that forces any introspection. Hard to really feel like better days are ahead even now, doesn’t it? That gruesome ankle injury in the summer of 2016 from which he never really got right. Heck, he got a parasite playing in the Dominican in the winter of 2017. Sometimes, it just ain’t your luck.
Swihart’s potential was simply always that, from the day the Sox took him No. 26 overall in 2011 — “could hit .300 with 20+ homers annually,” crowed MLB.com — to Tuesday, when Dombrowski told the press essentially that he’s had no luck trying to trade him for more than a year.
Dombrowski on whether there had been a time/Opportunity to trade Swihart: ‘The answer to that is no.’ Said club was open to fielding offers dating to spring training 2017.
— Alex Speier (@alexspeier) April 16, 2019
Christian Vazquez got 500 at-bats in 2016-17, hit .268/.312/.371 (a wRC+ of 78, for the sabermetrically inclined), and got a three-year contract. Blake Swihart got 300 at-bats in 2015, hit .274/.319/.392 (a wRC+ of 93, meaning he was about 15 percent more productive offensively) and got … six games.
He was the starting catcher for six games in 2016 before he was benched, John Farrell pointing to his defense not being up to par. (Swihart did have three passed balls in those six games, but Farrell also made a 24-year-old his starting catcher and pulled the alarm for the returning Vazquez in a week.) After a month in Pawtucket came 13 games as the left fielder, Swihart’s June 4 collision with the wall folding his foot into his shin and effectively changing everything.
He hit .325 in spring 2017, but the defense still wasn’t right so down he went. He had no place on the team in 2018, but out of minor-league options, Alex Cora left him to linger — Swihart played seven positions (including DH) and spent essentially all year with the parent club, but got just 41 starts. Another year lost.
It’s nothing less than a masterclass in how not to nurture talent. The Red Sox let Dustin Pedroia hit .184 in his first 52 MLB games, Terry Francona playing him essentially every day in April 2007 until he figured it out. Jason Varitek, a Swihart guy to the end, established himself as a major leaguer at age 27 after playing 86 games as the backup in 1998. (Swihart played 84 in 2015.)
Are those comparisons too heady? Are we giving too much credit to just another prospect who didn’t pan out? A guy who didn’t meet the hype by his own doing?
On the one hand, Boston’s process worked. That 119-win team a year ago had Vazquez and Leon behind the plate, two of the four worst offensive catchers in the game by wRC+.
On the other, those questions are maybe the hardest, most frustrating part of all of this. Because of the Sox, when it comes to Blake Swihart, we’ll probably never know.