Catching on: Blake Swihart’s accelerating development behind the plate
|08.05.14 at 9:47 am ET|
PAWTUCKET, R.I. — There were two outs in the fifth inning and Pawtucket Red Sox lefty Henry Owens had just walked his second batter of the game on a 3-2 count in the midst of a bid for a no-hitter. Owens seemed momentarily frustrated with himself and began to wander around the mound. Emerging from his crouch behind the plate, catcher Blake Swihart called time and began a slow jog to the mound where he was met by a look of relief from Owens.
As he stepped onto the mound, Swihart flipped down his catcher’s mask and put his arm around Owens, comforting the pitcher, as the pair began to plan their attack against Elliot Johnson of the Columbus Clippers. The look of comfort was evident in Owens’ eyes as Swihart jogged to set up behind the plate.
As Owens went into his windup, there was an extra oomph behind each of his pitches. Johnson was quickly set down on a fly ball to left fielder Bryce Brentz. Swihart, walking toward the dugout, gave a fist bump to Owens in celebration of the shared success.
Swihart’s ability to relate and talk to his pitching staff has become a huge area of growth in the last year. Catcher Matt Spring, who has been Swihart’s teammate for two years, said that Swihart’s ability to talk to and work with a pitching staff has become a huge factor in the catcher’s improvement on the defensive end.
“He gets on the same page as his pitchers and has a really good working relationship with them,” Spring said. “That was one thing where there is usually a longer process, especially with how young he is. He asks questions all the time and he is always listening and he’s just done an incredible job of being able to run a pitching staff on a day-in, day-out basis. Obviously, at the plate, he’s been fantastic.”
Swihart is relatively new to catching, having picked up the position in high school. Spring remembers seeing Swihart as a young, raw catcher who was just eager to learn and absorb any information he could get regarding improvement at the position defensively.
“He’s worked his tail off to not only get better with receiving and blocking, but the biggest thing is that those pitchers feel comfortable every time he’s in the lineup catching them,” Spring said. “That’s just a testament to his work and the questions that he asks. He’s just done a really good job.”
When situations present themselves as they did in the fifth inning on Thursday, Swihart uses his maturity and poise to talk to a pitcher to calm him down in any given situation. The trust that Swihart is able to develop with his pitchers plays a major role in his ability to help control a pitcher’s emotions during a game. That tool, Spring said, is priceless for a catcher, especially for a 22-year-old backstop.
“[Pitchers] will tell you that every once in a while they might need a kick in the butt. Every once in a while, they might need a pat on the back,” Spring said. “[Swihart] does a really good job of finding that balance when guys might need it. … I think learning that at such a young age shows what kind of student of the game he is, and that’s really sped up his development as a catcher.”
Red Sox director of player development Ben Crockett said that he is pleased with Swihart’s progress both behind the plate and in the batter’s box. Crockett said that Swihart continues to make major strides defensively, while at the plate Swihart demonstrates a sound, mature approach while displaying tangible improvements over the course of the season.
“[Swihart] throws the ball well and receives and blocks well and continues to get better with those things,” Crockett said. “He’s relatively new to it. It’s 3 1/2 years in pro ball doing it. He’s got a lot of reps. Blake’s personality is such that when he’s given a task or wants to accomplish something, he generally does. He’ll do anything he can to do it the very best he can and he’s prepared himself very well.”
Despite the catcher’s 0-for-3 performance in Monday’s 5-0 victory, PawSox manager Kevin Boles was impressed by Swihart in his debut with the team.
“[Swihart] was very athletic behind the plate,” Boles said. “Love his energy, too. Love his charge. Gave the signs, looking in for signs, he was on time the whole outing. Just the pace and tempo and watching him throw in between innings, watching him bounce around, he is just a high-energy kid and like his athleticism behind the plate. Presents the ball very well, showed coverage, gained ground when blocking.”
One area of consistent praise for Swihart is his willingness to ask questions. That quality, Spring said, is a prime example why Swihart has the tools to be a successful major league catcher. Spring said that seeing Swihart talking to David Ross about the position was a common sight during spring training. Swihart said that being one step closer to the majors and seeing former teammates such as Mookie Betts, play in the big leagues only makes the thirst for big league life that much greater.
“It motivates everyone,” Swihart said. “Wherever we are at, we still have to motivate ourselves and keep proving ourselves.”
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