FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Blake Swihart seems to have all the angles covered in his bid to be a big-league catcher.
Is it a matter of intellect? He had a 4.0 GPA at Cleveland High School in New Mexico, and his father, Arlan, was a nuclear physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Is it a matter of athletic ability? As an 8-year-old, he was the No. 1-ranked wrestler in the nation in his age group. He has played basketball -- like his 6-foot-7 father, a former player at Southern Illinois -- and actually considered it to be his best sport. And he drew the most attention in high school as a shortstop and outfielder, later playing first base and left field for Team USA.
Is it a matter of work ethic? Pitcher Drake Britton said Swihart is at camp early every morning. And Kevin Walker, the pitching coach at High-A Salem last year, said Swihart “brings absolute energy to every day.”
Veteran catcher David Ross is getting his first look at Swihart, and really likes what he sees.
“I think the talent is obviously there,” Ross said. “I think he’s going to be a really good major-league catcher.”
The 22-year-old Swihart, who received a $2.5 million bonus after being Boston’s first-round pick (26th overall) in the 2011 draft, has been on a fast rise, and is now Baseball America’s No. 5 prospect in the organization and No. 73 overall. He’s come so far that MLB.com ranks him the No. 5 catching prospect in all of baseball.
This is his first big-league camp, and he’s all ears.
“I’m learning a lot, just listening to guys talk and asking questions,” he said. “It’s been great. The whole idea is to just learn as much as I can. I want to know what it takes to be a big-leaguer. So I’m just watching the veterans, seeing how they act.
“I’m still a young catcher, still learning the position. So I take in what I can," said Swihart, who is scheduled to catch the second game of Thursday's doubleheader against Boston College. "I listen to everybody and do whatever I’m told to do, so I can get better and take it to the next level.”
Said Ross, “He just needs more experience. Game-calling is going to be totally different from the minor-league level to the big-league level. It’s just experience stuff. We’re always working on our game. That’s the thing I like about him. He keeps working on his skills. There’s more to catching than just calling the game. It’s getting to know pitchers, how to handle personalities, how to lead behind the plate. But I think he has the intangibles to do that.”
Swihart didn’t start catching until his junior year of high school, and he never spent much time there because his team needed him at shortstop.
He said his career really took off at the Albuquerque Baseball Academy, where he learned to switch-hit. He drew a lot of attention there, which led to invitations to the AFLAC All-American Game and then in 2010 to Team USA, where he hit .448 to lead the squad.
Last year at Salem, he hit .298 with a .366 on-base percentage and .428 slugging mark. But his progress behind the plate was the real revelation: He led the Carolina League in putouts, assists and caught-stealing percentage (42 percent), and was named the organization’s Defensive Player of the Year.
And he’s taking this catching conversion seriously. After the season, the Red Sox asked him to put on some weight. So between the end of the season and the beginning of camp, he added 20 pounds, going from 180 to 200.
“It was just lifting every day, doing the right workouts, eating right,” he said. “It’ll give me more durability and endurance. I’ll be more capable of handling every-day catching. That’s what they wanted me to do, so I did it. I can still move like I did. I worked to where I still have the capability of running and moving and being athletic.”
Swihart is expected to start the year in Double-A Portland. But one of the reasons why the Red Sox signed A.J. Pierzynski for just one year is their confidence in Swihart and Christian Vazquez.
Count Ross among the impressed.
“He’s got some thump in his swing,” Ross said. “I’ve watched him take BP, and I really like his swing, especially from the left side. Switch-hitting catchers don’t come around that often.”