Sports

Blasberg ’18: Of pitchers and catchers

By
Sports Columnist
Friday, February 19, 2016

After last season’s strange struggles — yet improbable August surge — Red Sox fans have been counting the days until their beloved ballclub can have another shot at the playoffs and the Fall Classic. Though Opening Day is still a month and a half away, mid-February brings new hope to the Fenway faithful. Players, coaches, executives and fans flock to Fort Myers, Florida for spring training. A breath of fresh air. A clean slate. Pitchers and catchers reported for Spring Training yesterday. What can we make of the Red Sox’s battery this year?

Youthful Catchers

The Red Sox are in a fortunate position to have two young, talented catchers in Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez. The only question is which one to use.

Vazquez missed the entire 2015 season due to an unexpected injury to his right elbow, resulting in Tommy John surgery. Vazquez, who earned a reputation during the 2014 season as a phenomenal defensive catcher, has indicated that he will be 100 percent physically by Opening Day. Though he has not proven he can hit over .250 in the major leagues, Vazquez is a real asset to pitchers because of his ability to frame pitches, block pitches in the dirt and throw out runners. Of course, Vazquez will not be as aggressive whipping the ball to the bases this season as he was in 2014 due to his recent injury, so his effectiveness as a thrower will be essential to track as manager John Farrell decides on a starting catcher.

On the other hand, Swihart emerged last season as a young talent that brings uncharacteristic power and speed to the catcher position. He hit .275 last year, and his late-season success may foreshadow a productive offensive campaign this season. But his defense is lacking, as he is poor at keeping tough pitches in front of him, allowing baserunners to advance easily on passed balls. Swihart is also not a game-caller in whom pitchers have confidence, a skill that is paramount for the Red Sox this year as they have a lot of pitchers who are both young and new to the organization.

Provided that Vazquez is throwing the ball well, the Sox should start him over Swihart. Despite his offensive deficiencies, the defensive edge that Vazquez provides suits the Red Sox’s needs right now. Swihart is still an asset to the Red Sox, as he could be an effective pinch hitter because he can bat from both sides of the plate. The Red Sox could use him as trade leverage because he may turn out to be an extraneous player on this year’s team, but he is young and has a tremendous upside. I can see the Red Sox dealing him away to further bulk up the bullpen.

Pitchers

The Sox’s pitchers this year inspire much more confidence than they did last year. The only question is whether they can get enough innings out of their starters. A problem last year was the starters would often get battered early in games, or let their pitch count get out of control and only get through five innings. This put an already shaky bullpen in a position where it was overworked. The additions of Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith — alongside returning relievers Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa — were essential. With Tazawa and Smith as middle relievers and the aging Uehara as a set-up man, Kimbrel, the best closer in baseball last year, should never have to pitch more than an inning per game. The new bullpen gives Farrell more options late in games, saving him from risking the young arms of Eduardo Rodriguez and Henry Owens in the seventh and eighth innings.

The Red Sox do have some promising arms this season, most notably David Price. Price, an ex-Tampa Bay Ray, is a proven force in the AL East and is the Sox’s projected ace. But recent high-profile acquisitions have blown up in the Red Sox’s face, and the addition of Price begs the question if he will follow in the footsteps of Pablo Sandoval, Rick Porcello and Hanley Ramirez. Regardless of how he meets expectations, Price should be able to produce between 180 and 200 innings, which is exactly what the Red Sox need.

Thirty-one-year-old Clay Buchholz, whose past two seasons have been plagued by injury, seems due for a complete season of quality pitching. If there’s any season for him to perform, it is this one. Buchholz has proven he can pitch like an ace in spurts, but his issue has always been being able to pitch deep into games come late July and August. Buchholz is under pressure, to some degree, to finally stay healthy for a whole season because many of the arms behind him are young and won’t eat up many innings.

Both Porcello and Joe Kelly had disappointing first halves of last season, which played a huge role in putting the Sox into the hole that they were never able to dig themselves out of. But Kelly pitched substantially better in the second half of the season. After starting his season 2-6, Kelly rattled off eight consecutive wins to cap off his season. Porcello had no such saving grace, but the Red Sox are viewing last season as an aberration. At 27 years old, he is the golden age for a pitcher, and perhaps with Vazquez behind the plate, Porcello will be able to find a rhythm.

Finally, the Sox have two young arms that could contribute to the rotation alongside the veterans. Rodriguez and Owens both had flashes of brilliance last year, but that can often be attributed to them being new in the major leagues and batters not having a book on them. Their career trajectories will very much be determined by how they can follow up their successes this season, when batters have had a few looks at them. The Red Sox should not expect either to pitch deep into games because their arms are still young, but they both have very impressive stuff that will serve the Sox well, even if they only pitch until the fifth or sixth inning.

The Red Sox’s offseason acquisitions of Smith, Kimbrel and Price, as well as Vazquez’s recovery from his Tommy John surgery, give the Red Sox the luxury of having more players able to contribute late in games and deep into the season. Moreover, the starters will be under less pressure with a better defensive catcher and a more stable bullpen behind them.

Charlie Blasberg ’18 can be reached at charlie_blasberg@brown.edu.

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