We love hyping prospects. Especially hitters. While some players start their professional careers with seven-figure bonuses, an already growing brand, and invitations to spring training, others begin their rise to significance playing in stadiums that seat fewer than 4,000 fans and cities with populations only slightly larger than that. We treat these players like superheroes, following their origin stories and their rise through the minors in gleeful anticipation of the day they confirm our suspicions and lay waste to the MLB pitching.
Sometimes, however, things do not work out the way we planned. Lack of opportunity, the exposure of previously hidden (or ignored) flaws, and other factors tarnish the name and potential that previously made us salivate…at least until we find the next, next sure thing. Blake Swihart is one such former standout. Swihart was one of those players who came into his career with some buzz, enough to garner selection with the 26th overall pick by the Boston Red Sox. Almost from the point he was drafted Swihart appeared on Top 100 prospect rankings, starting out as the #72 overall prospect in 2012 per Baseball America.
He stayed in that range for the next couple of years before garnering almost unanimous support as a Top 20 prospect in 2015 according to lists created by Baseball America, MLB Pipeline, and Baseball Prospectus. Swihart looked to be on the verge of claiming a starting role in Boston before it all fell apart. A positional change and freak injury cost him a good portion of 2016, stalling his steady progress. 2017 saw him squeezed out of the roster due to excellent play by defensive stalwarts Sandy Leon and Cristian Vazquez. This continued in 2018 despite a blistering spring, relegating Swihart to limited playing time during the Red Sox championship season.
2019 might be a different story, however. Once again Swihart raked this spring, putting up a .406/.424/.594 line in Grapefruit League play. However, the Red Sox declined to bring back Leon at the as catcher, opening a pathway for Swihart behind the dish. He has taken advantage of that opportunity so far, slashing .353/.421/.588 with one home run through eight games. It’s an exciting line, but will Swihart hit enough the rest of the way to be a relevant fantasy option?
One major knock that has followed Swihart throughout his career has been that he lacks enough power to matter, even at such a weak offensive position. He has notched more than 10 home runs only once in his professional career (AA in 2014) and has struggled to generate the type of contact that could lead to further power at the big league level.
Until this year, that is. In his brief work in 2019, Swihart has been tearing the cover off of the ball. He has barreled 16.7% of the pitches he has seen and sports a 92.6 MPH average exit velocity (previous high: 87.7 MPH). His 50% Hard Hit% is almost double what he produced last season (26.7%) and he has increased his Launch Angle to 15.2 degrees (13.9 degrees in 2018).
Given the type of contact he is generating, his expected statistics are off the charts:
Now obviously, this is an incredibly small sample and not representative of what we can expect from Swihart over an entire season. But I like what I see given the garbage disposal slurry we typically receive from the catcher position.
Christian Vazquez (.185/.241/.370) is the only man standing in the way of Swihart taking over full-time catching duties, and even if he remains in a timeshare he holds more potential than other catching alternatives around the league. The Red Sox are shielding him from LHP, putting him in a position to avoid the issues they have caused him in his brief career (.205/.275/.253). His career line against RHP is much stronger (.278/.333/.411), especially in the power department (eight of his nine home runs came against RHP). He also offers potential in one area that evades most catchers: speed. Though he only appeared in 82 games, Swihart’s six steals ranked second at the position in 2018.
Despite everything, the biggest change that might propel Swihart into fantasy relevance is consistent playing time. Swihart has barely over one season worth of big league games (198) to his resume, and most of that did not come in consecutive segments. The idea that he may have finally figured something out at age 28 is not outlandish and entering the season firmly in the catching mix has to do wonders for the mental side of the game given the uncertainty he faced in previous seasons.
I’m keeping my eye on Swihart this season and would not at all be surprised if he ended the year as a top 15 option at the dish given regular playing time.