2015 Fantasy Baseball: 30 Prospects in 30 Days — Blake Swihart
Some of you may be old enough to remember 45s. I came of age in the tail end of the vinyl generation. Of course, vinyl went the way of the do-do bird and the concept of the single (and subsequent B side) seemed to go along with it. Then came cassettes, compact discs, and then finally MP3 technology. Suddenly, people were buying singles for 99 cents or a $1.29 on Itunes or Google Play. Suddenly, everything old was new again. The only thing missing was the B side.
The same has happened with catchers. In the good ol’ days, most teams considered it a bonus if catchers could hit at all. They wanted someone that could be a good receiver, part psychologist, and someone that could control the running game. As time went on, some of those considerations went by the wayside because numbers crunchers couldn’t quantify it. Teams wanted catchers with big arms and big bats. If they could block pitches in the dirt that would be great too. Fortunately, pitch framing is making a huge comeback and so are receiving skills. Blake Swihart is a part of that comeback.
Swihart was a high school prospect selected in the first round by the Red Sox back in 2011. Like many catching prospects, development has been somewhat slow for Swihart as he had to learn to catch and hit at the professional level. Many casual fans don’t understand that part of the developmental process. Many high school and college coaches call pitches from the dugout. Many amateur catchers never develop that end of the game.
Some catchers never learn that side of the game. Many call pitches depending on how hard or easy it will be for them to throw out a would be base stealer. It takes an advanced catcher to learn that their job is to help the pitcher be as successful as possible. Swihart is one of the few that seems to be making this transformation. As you will see shortly, he has made a huge jump. Part of that is being one step closer to the big leagues, but much of it is with the acknowledgement of pitch framing data that shows how good he is as a receiver. That tends to make his whole grade play up.
There might not be a player on our 30 for 30 list that has made a bigger jump than Swihart. In 2014, most of the pundits had him rated somewhere between 61 and 75 among the top 100 prospects. This season all three major publications (Baseball America, MLB.com, and Baseball Prospectus) have Swihart ranked among the top 20 prospects in the game. Much of it is due to a step forward offensively. However, offense certainly couldn’t explain all of it because the offensive numbers aren’t that great.
The real key is the combination of offensive potential along with the awesome receiving skills. Pitch framing data is fairly new, but it is one of the more revolutionary metrics in the game. It is the first hard data that quantifies how good of a receiver a catcher is. Couple that with measurements on blocking balls in the dirt, controlling the running game, and overall catcher ERA numbers and we can get a pretty good picture of a catcher’s overall defensive profile. Swihart is one of the best based on the data seen so far.
Sometimes basic numbers can be deceiving, so when we look at minor league hitters we want to look a few extra numbers. For instance, a look at just the home run numbers may be more than deceiving. In 2013, we saw the home run totals go down, but the extra base hits went up in a more advanced league. Swihart’s overall power actually increased and we eventually saw some of those doubles and triples turn into home runs the following season. The same will happen at the big league level.
Swihart will never be an elite offensive prospect, but I suspect we will see a shift in catching at the big league level to match what teams are discovering about catcher value. In the 1960s and 1970s we saw the Bob Boones and Jim Sundbergs thrive despite lesser offensive skills. The same might be true with the latter part of the 2010s and 2020s.
As a fantasy baseball site, it is hard to spend so much time focused on fielding and defense, but they are related to overall fantasy production. In order to hit home runs, drive in runs, and score runs you have to be in the lineup. In order to be in the lineup you have to offer some defensive value and premium defensive positions. Catcher is one of those positions, so more and more teams will be looking for good receivers now that they know what they look like.
Swihart has the look of a catcher that might not produce much more than .280/10/60/60, but those numbers will begin to play up as there are more Blake Swiharts in the game. Christian Vazquez is essentially a similar player and he has the job right now. He produced a .617 OPS in 2014, so it’s not like Swihart has a lot to do to win the job someday.
The Red Sox will have a pretty stable catching situation coming into the 2015 season. They acquired Ryan Hanigan in the offseason to provide a veteran presence to take the place of the departed David Ross. They don’t need Swihart to come to the rescue. However, he is off to a good start in the early going in Spring Training, so he may end up forcing himself into the lineup before it is all said and done. Yet it is probably more likely that he will start the season in Pawtucket.