Decision to make Swihart catcher paying off
Ranked No. 5 backstop by MLB.com, switch-hitter likely bound for Double-A
BOSTON -- Blake Swihart didn't look much like a catcher when the Red Sox selected him in the First-Year Player Draft out of high school in 2011, and for good reason. At the time, he wasn't one.
However, Boston had the foresight to convert Swihart from a third baseman and outfielder into a catcher, and that decision has been a profoundly positive one for all involved. Now very much a catcher, Swihart is ranked as the fifth-best catching prospect in all of baseball in rankings released Thursday by MLB.com's prospect gurus.
"I weighed in at 164 when I first signed, so I've put on almost 40 pounds," said Swihart. "I feel better. I can move just as well as I did then, if I'm not faster and more flexible. It's been good."
And at 200 pounds, Swihart hardly looks stocky. In fact, he looks athletic.
"That's the whole thing. You can lift and work out, but you've got to maintain your flexibility," said Swihart. "You don't want to get tight to where you can't throw the ball or swing the bat. A big thing with me is stretching. My trainer that I have, he always makes me stretch."
The New Mexico native has a promising switch-hitting bat and hit .298 with a .366 on-base percentage for Class A Advanced Salem last year. The power hasn't come just yet, but there are plenty of scouts who think it will.
This season, Swihart figures to make the leap to Double-A Portland. Swihart is at the Red Sox's Rookie Development Program this week at Harvard University, which is telling. The club only invites prospects to that program who it feels are relatively close to reaching the Major Leagues.
If Boston fans hadn't heard of Swihart when the offseason started, they probably have by now. When Jarrod Saltalamacchia was permitted to leave as a free agent, one of the reasons the Red Sox cited for signing A.J. Pierzynski to just a one-year deal is their level of optimism in their Minor League catchers. The two they are most excited about are Swihart and Christian Vazquez.
"I tried not to pay attention. My dad, I let him worry about that stuff. I'm just going to go out and play and try to do my thing to get up here," said Swihart. "He would always try [to get my attention], saying, 'They're saying good things about you on the radio.' I was like, 'All right, Dad, I've got to go lift. I'll talk to you later.'"
Swihart, who is just 21, has noticeable composure for his age. Ask him what he improved on last year, and the answers come naturally.
"Everything," Swihart said. "I've calmed down in the batter's box. I was more comfortable catching. I learned how to call pitches in better situations. I improved everywhere, and I feel like I can improve even more this year. I'm just getting more comfortable. My first year, I feel like I was pressing so much trying to prove myself, and last year I just went out and played and had fun again. It was a lot of fun."
One of the benefits to being a Minor League catcher for the Red Sox these days is that it leads to interaction with Jason Varitek, who is a special assistant to general manager Ben Cherington.
"He came down to Salem twice to work with me and watch the games. That was pretty good," said Swihart. "He's just a book of knowledge. Anything he says has a meaning. He and I talked one day all about switch-hitting. He was a switch-hitter. We were talking about different stuff like that and carrying it over to catching. If you have a bad at-bat, you can't carry that into the field, because you've got to be one with the pitcher and make sure the pitcher gets his job done. It's pretty cool."
If Swihart gets an invitation to Major League Spring Training next month, he will be able to absorb lessons from not just Varitek, but also Pierzynski and David Ross.
"It's fun to see these guys develop," said Pierzynski. "I was with the White Sox for so long that I got to see guys come up from A-ball and develop into big leaguers. It's cool to see that and you feel good for those guys, and whenever you get the opportunity to work with someone, you want to see them develop and become better."
The one lesson that Swihart is going to hear the most -- be it from Varitek, Pierzynski or Ross -- is that his most important responsibility is his work with the pitching staff.
"I feel like I've only been catching for three years now, so I feel like I've got to improve on pitch calling the most," Swihart said. "I go up each level, and sometimes it's the same pitchers, but they like to throw different things in different situations, and you've got to learn that and get comfortable with that."