January 16, 2014 at 7:30 AM
BOSTON, Mass. — It is not often that a player in A-ball makes his presence felt at the major league level. But that is just what happened this offseason with Blake Swihart as the Boston Red Sox waded into the pool of available free agent catchers.
With incumbent starting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia a free agent and returning backup David Ross signed only through 2014, one could have seen the club deciding it prudent to spend the cash to either re-sign the former or some other free agent to a long-term deal, such as Brian McCann or Carlos Ruiz. Instead, the club opted to sign A.J. Pierzynski for just one year.
The message was loud and clear: The team believes there’s a good chance its future at the position lies in the 21-year-old Swihart and his 23-year-old counterpart in Portland and Pawtucket this past season, Christian Vazquez. With Vazquez likely one year away and Swihart hopefully needing just two, a multi-year outlay to a veteran could have blocked the position.
Instead, the club appears to see its future behind the plate on the near horizon. Just do not expect Swihart to get caught up in the hype.
“I try not to pay attention,” Swihart said recently at the New Stars for Young Stars fundraiser on Jan. 11. “My dad, I let him worry about all that stuff. He would always try to say, ‘Hey, they’re saying good things about you on the radio right now!’ I’d say, ‘Ok dad, I gotta go lift, I’ll talk to you later.’ I’m just going to go out and play and just try to do my thing to get up [to Boston].”
But the Albuquerque native’s time in the majors could be coming soon. The 2011 first-round pick hit .298/.366/.428 in High A Salem this year, helping the club to win its league championship while earning the organization’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
This week, he is taking a break from his offseason training in New Mexico with a group of local pro ballplayers to take part in the Rookie Development Program in Boston. Back home, he has been working primarily on building mass while maintaining flexibility, and said that he was up to 200 pounds from 164 when he first signed in 2011, but can move just as well as he did then.
But of course, Swihart’s standing within the organization is based on a lot more than muscle. When asked what he improved upon in his breakout season, his initial answer was “everything.”
“I calmed down in the batter’s box, I was more comfortable catching, I learned how to call pitches in better situation — I improved everywhere,” he said. “My first year I think I was pressing so much, trying to prove myself, and last year I just went out and played and had fun again.”
With Pierzynski also at the event, Swihart was asked about whether he would take the opportunity to pick the 16-year veteran’s brain. His answer revealed another secret to his success: his desire and strategy to learn about catching.
“Definitely. Any catcher — Ross, I talked to Salty last year, any catcher that comes in that has more experience catching than I do, I definitely pick their brain, I talk to them,” he said. “Chad Epperson, the catching coordinator, he and I are always having conversations. I’ve had conversations with [Jason] Varitek. Every day I see these guys, if I have a question, I’m going to ask it. Sometimes even if I don’t have a question, I make one up so I can hear what they have to say, whether it be catching or hitting, or how to balance both of them together.”
Swihart had particularly good things to say about his time with Varitek in the former Sox All-Star’s two trips to Salem this year.
“He’s just a book of knowledge. Anything he says has meaning,” he said. “He and I talked one day just about switch-hitting, [and] how you can’t carry it over [into the field] if you have a bad at-bat. You have to be one with the pitcher and make sure the pitcher gets his job done.”
And help the Salem pitchers he did. Swihart caught several pitchers who had great seasons in 2013, none more impressive than left-hander Henry Owens. Swihart talked a little about what the system’s top pitching prospect did to have so much success this season.
“He was just being confident in himself. He was just pitching, having fun,” he said. “I’d go out there, he would never shake me off, he threw what I called. He trusted it and he had confidence in every pitch he had.”
Preparing for his likely assignment to Double-A Portland, Swihart — who event organizers went out of their way to praise for reaching out and asking to attend the Jimmy Fund fundraiser for the second year in a row — said that he was not worried about his first foray into playing for a cold-weather affiliate. He was also focused on continuing his development behind the plate after playing very little there in game action before being drafted.
“I’ve only been catching for three years now, so I feel like I still need to improve on pitch calling the most,” he said. “I go up each level and I work with new pitchers, sometimes the same pitchers, but they throw different things in different situations, so I’ve got to learn that and get comfortable with that.”
Photo credit: Blake Swihart and a young fan by Kelly O’Connor
Chris Hatfield is Executive Editor of SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @SPChrisHatfield.