Swihart beat out Leon for the backup catching spot at the end of Spring Training. When nobody claimed Leon off waivers, the veteran defensive specialist accepted an assignment to Triple-A Pawtucket.
With the defending World Series champion Red Sox a disappointing 6-11 entering the start of a two-game series at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, the club decided to reverse its decision from just a few weeks ago and bring Leon back.
"By no means [am I] saying that we're putting this on Blake," said Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. "It's just, our guys haven't pitched very well. There's a combination of factors. But we just felt at this time it was better to bring up more of a veteran-type catcher to handle a veteran starting pitching staff, so that's what we decided to do."
The timing is certainly interesting, given that struggling ace Chris Sale (0-3, 9.00 ERA) started Tuesday night's opener in the Bronx. Sale has always thrived with Leon, who caught most of the left-hander's games the past two seasons. Leon was in the lineup for Tuesday's game.
"Everybody," said Leon. "It's not only [Sale]. I think I like everybody here. We've got a great pitching staff. We showed that last year because we won. I think we've just got to come together, play together and just try to win every game."
In 2018, Sale had a 2.04 ERA and 178 strikeouts over 110 1/3 innings with Leon behind the plate. In '17, Leon caught 209 of Sale’s 214 1/3 frames, and the southpaw registered a 2.63 ERA with a whopping 303 strikeouts in those innings.
"I told Sandy, 'Don't feel like you have to come here and be the savior.' It doesn't work that way," said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. "But there's comfort level, we know what he's done the last few years. Nothing against Blake obviously, you know how we feel about him, too. It's one of those baseball decisions."
Swihart, a first-round pick by the Red Sox in 2011 (No. 26 overall), is a switch-hitter who has hit .231/.310/.385 with one home run and four RBIs across 12 games this season. The 27-year-old primarily has played behind the plate this season, seeing action there in eight games. He also has shown some versatility, playing one game each at first base and in left field.
When a player's contract is designated for assignment -- often abbreviated "DFA" -- that player is immediately removed from his club's 40-man roster, and 25-man roster if he was on that as well. Within seven days of the transaction (it was previously 10 days), the player must either be traded, released or placed on irrevocable outright waivers.
"He really needs to go out and play more than what we can give him, to handle the staff, all the nuances of the game, all the things he needs to do, and we like him a lot," Dombrowski said about Swihart's development. "It's just right now, we think Sandy Leon's a better fit for us."
Given Swihart's pedigree and ability to play behind the plate (as well as other positions), there's a good chance he'll draw trade interest. Last year, the Red Sox carried Christian Vázquez, Leon and Swihart on the roster for nearly the entire season.
But Dombrowski and Cora didn't think that arrangement was sustainable this year, so they had to choose between Leon and Swihart as the backup.
Originally, the Red Sox went with the upside of Swihart's bat. But with them in possession of a 5.93 ERA, which is 28th in the Majors, they've reversed course and gone back to a player who has built his reputation on his glove skills and ability to work well with pitchers. Leon entered 2019 with a 3.51 catcher's ERA since the start of the '15 season, the lowest mark in the American League among players with 100 starts at catcher.
"In Spring Training with our catching, we had a split camp on what move we were going to make," Dombrowski said. "We debated it long and hard. Finally decided to go in this direction, because it is actually finally my decision. It ended up being a spot where we also thought we might get Leon through waivers, which we did, so we could have some depth.
"But then as we got here at this point, really, there's only one move you can make, and that's with Swihart if you're going to replace him. For us, we just figured we wanted to bring Leon up to handle our pitching staff. He's really good at it. So that's what we decided to do."
Leon's offense was an issue last year, as he slashed .177/.232/.279 with five homers and 22 RBIs in 265 at-bats.
Yet the Red Sox still won the World Series with 108 wins in the regular season and an 11-3 rampage through the Yankees, Astros and Dodgers in the postseason.
"I know I had a great year behind the plate and I didn't hit that much last year," said Leon. "I wasn't killing it in Triple-A, but I still have been working. I've been working to get better. But I think my strong point is being behind the plate, just trying to do my best there. If I hit it's going to be a plus. I'm going to try to do my best [to hit] better than last year."