Blake Swihart wasn't a full-time catcher until he was drafted by the Red Sox in 2011. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

'Utility player' until 4 years ago, Blake Swihart using baseball knowledge to become successful big league catcher

Ryan Hannable
May 20, 2015 - 9:38 am

Just by watching him catch his first 12 games in the majors, you would never know Blake Swihart has only been a full-time catcher for four years. Growing up, Swihart was a "utility player" and it wasn't until he was drafted out of V Sue Cleveland high school in Rio Rancho, New Mexico in the first round of the 2011 draft by the Red Sox that he became a full-time catcher. "I was always a utility player -- I played everywhere, played every position, moved around," Swihart said. According to his high school coach for his junior and senior years, Shane Shallenberger, Swihart caught roughly 50 percent of games, usually when pro scouts wanted to see him behind the plate. He threw out 54 percent of potential base stealers in his junior year, and about the same in his senior year. In his senior year, Swihart hit .602 with 17 doubles, five triples, five home runs, 41 runs batted in and 58 runs scored in 28 games. It also wasn't until the summer prior to his senior year that he became a switch-hitter -- Ryan Kelmer from Albuquerque Baseball Academy's idea. "He said I am going to have you hit switch-handed, left-handed all summer, I don't care if you strike out 100 times, but that is what will get you to the next level," said Swihart. The move paid off when the Red Sox selected him No. 26 overall and he forgoed his baseball scholarship to the University of Texas to turn pro. "Blake is one of the hardest workers I've ever had," Shallenberger said when reached via phone recently. "We would play a doubleheader on a Saturday and Blake would go to the cages afterwards to still work on things. He was always looking to take extra ground balls. Catching, he wanted extra work because he knew that was where he was going to be. He was a 4.0 student so obviously it wasn't just work on the field, he worked off the field in the classroom as well." While the Red Sox have recently shown switching positions can be done (ie. Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Brock Holt), and done well, switching to catcher is a different story, as it is arguably the most demanding position on the field with everything that goes into working with the pitchers. Swihart said that was the hardest part with adjusting to being a full-time catcher. "Just learning the pitching staff," he said. "Learning what they are best at and best in certain situations. That is the toughest thing, building relationships and learning what they like." Fortunately for Swihart he has a very high baseball IQ, according to his former coach, and he already started studying opposing hitters in high school, so now he's just doing it everyday. "That is Blake understanding the game," said Shallenberger. "He would go out and talk to a pitcher -- speed up the game at times, slow the game at times -- he knew what it took. Blake played against a lot of guys in our state, it's a small state so he knew most guys from the summer time so when the season rolled around he knew how to get people out. "He was able to do things like that because he studied them during the offseason time. He remembered things which was pretty phenomenal." Now that Swihart has reached the majors, being called up May 2 when Ryan Hanigan went down with a fractured finger, he is one of the most athletic catchers in the game because of his days of playing all over the field prior to being drafted. He's used that to his advantage, as opponents who are unfamiliar with him don't realize he's not a typical catcher and can actually move down the line. This was shown this past Sunday in Seattle when he hit a routine grounder to shortstop, but Brad Miller took his time getting it over to first thinking it was a pro-typical slow catcher running and Swihart, running hard out of the box, beat the throw for an infield single. "No one is going to expect a catcher to move like that, so when I can try and sneak some hits in there it's nice," he said. Swihart made his debut earlier than many in the organization expected and ideally wanted him to, as he likely needed another year to polish his defensive skills behind the plate in the minors, but they had little choice once Hanigan went down as Christian Vazquez was already lost for the year because of Tommy John surgery. Too soon or not, Swihart is making the most his opportunity and earning the praise of the big league pitchers he's catching, some for the first time. "€œWe talked a lot. He did a great job back there," Rick Porcello said after he threw to Swihart for the first time. "I had not thrown to him once. I didn'€™t even throw a bullpen to him in spring training. So we definitely talked a lot about our game plan and what we wanted to do to guys. He really did an outstanding job, especially not catching me before." Shallenberger is not the least bit surprised. "Blake is different in the aspect that he is a true baseball player," he said. "He gets the game of baseball. A lot of time you have athletes that are very good athletes, and good baseball players, but they don't understand the game and Blake, not only is he a skilled athlete, but he understands the game. "I am not surprised at it being this quick, it was just a matter of time."