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Why Red Sox prospect Blake Swihart is his ‘own breed of catcher’ (15-second edition)

01.18.14 at 7:31 am ET
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Blake Swihart is a catcher. He occupies a position where most of his peers are characterized charitably as something between lumbering and immobile. That being the case, it takes very little time to understand that the 21-year-old represents a different sort of prospect for his position.

The Sox were drawn to Swihart’s athleticism when they drafted him, believing that his body type, quickness and strong arm would allow him to develop into a solid defender behind the plate and contribute to well above-average offense as a switch-hitter. Yet it is one thing for a player to be described as athletic, and quite another for him to display the trait.

But on Friday, during the portion of the Red Sox Rookie Development Program that was open to the public, the 2011 first-rounder offered a head-turning display of his athleticism in a mere 15 seconds. Paired with shortstop Deven Marrero in a shuttle run drill, Swihart proved much quicker than the player with whom he played in Salem in 2013. A player who is at a position that is supposed to struggle to keep up with first baseman instead ended up flying past another up-the-middle player.

Here is the Zapruder evidence (Swihart is the blur in the foreground, Marrero the one in the background):

Swihart has managed to add 40 pounds to his frame (going from about 160 pounds at the time he signed to 200 pounds now) without compromising his agility or athleticism. Adding to both traits is something that Swihart has prioritized.

“I’ve always been able to run really well. I’ve got a really quick first couple steps. My dad had me play basketball for a couple years just so I could get my feet quicker so I can move. That’s what makes me different from most catchers, I believe,” said Swihart. “I’m just kind of a different-looking catcher I guess. I feel really athletic back there. I can move really well back there. If I’m confident in myself to get in front of a ball that maybe someone else won’t get to, that may take me to the next level.

“I’ve talked to [Chad Epperson], our catching coordinator, and I’ve talked to a bunch of people about who I need to look at catching-wise. Who am I like? They say, ‘You’re not like anybody. You’re your own breed of catcher, the way you move, how quick your feet are.’ I like kind of figuring it out on my own, succeeding my way.”

Swihart shows an overall diverse skill set. He’s a switch-hitter who barrels the ball for loud contact from both sides of the plate. He hit .298 with a .366 OBP and .428 slugging mark in High-A Salem this past year, with an outstanding .367/.419/.519 line against lefties and a solid .279/.352/.404 line against righties, all while showing the bat speed to expect that he might add more extra-base ability down the road. He’s described by team officials as having “off the charts” makeup and leadership abilities (traits that were evident as he guided Salem’s pitching staff to the Carolina League championship). He possesses plenty of arm strength, with his home-to-second pop times typically registering from the 1.8s to 1.95 (1.95 is considered major league average). And his athleticism has allowed him to make rapid strides behind the plate, even though he’s relatively new to catching, having only become a full-time backstop after being drafted.

“Blake really has continued to make a lot of progress on both sides of the ball, but particularly defensively. I think we kind of recognized that with the Defensive Player of the Year,” said Sox farm director Ben Crockett. “Tremendous athlete, someone who has gotten a lot better behind the plate. He’s got plenty of arm strength and I think that athleticism is really starting to translate behind the plate. He took more leadership this year and I think the leadership, the game-planning, the relationship with pitches are things that he will continue to prioritize as someone who’s kind of new to the position. And then I think offensively, the approach improved quite a bit this year but will continue to be a focal point for him. He’s someone that is a very good hitter and feels like he can hit a lot of pitches. I think as he moves up a level — and we saw it from Greenville to Salem — he became more selective. He became more aggressive to pitches he can handle a little bit more often. That’s something that he can continue to try to refine.”

The overall view of the young catcher is one of a player with an unusually diverse set of skills for his position, something that suggests a considerable ceiling as he continues to move up the ladder. After playing all of 2013 in High-A Salem, he’ll be in Double-A Portland to start 2014, with his first big league camp on the horizon (Swihart will take part as a non-roster invitee). There, Swihart — ranked the No. 5 prospect in the Red Sox farm system by Baseball America — will have an opportunity to show whether he is indeed his “own breed” against the more advanced competition of the upper levels.

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