Welcome to our 2020 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2020. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2021 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we take a look at the 2020 season for Kevin Plawecki.
2020 in one sentence
Kevin Plawecki was brought in to hopefully provide a bit more punch than Sandy León, and ultimately provided that and then some.
Look, we’re talking today about a backup catcher who played behind one of the best starting catchers in the game over the course of a 60-game season. As a result, we’re not really dealing with the most representative sample. But when Plawecki did get the chance to play — he ended the year with 24 games and 89 plate appearances — he was better than he’s ever been at the plate on a rate basis. By the time the dust settled on the 2020 campaign, the former Met and Indian had hit .341/.393/.463 for a 134 wRC+. His previous career-high wRC+ had been 107, and this past season was only the second time he finished with a mark better than league-average.
Now, to be fair, some of this stuff was not all that sustainable, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given how much better he was than has been typical over his career. But looking at his production in 2020, Plawecki was mainly boosted by a .403 batting average on balls in play. Nobody can sustain a BABIP that high, of course, but for Plawecki it wasn’t even that he was crushing baseballs, with his hard-hit rate staying right in line with his entire career. He did hit more line drives than usual which certainly leads to more hits, but that’s also both fluky and hard to parse in a small sample as the difference between fly balls and line drives can be pretty shaky.
But even given some luck involved, part of it was that Plawecki made his own luck. The first step to getting luck on balls in play is, well, putting the ball in play. And in this area, the Red Sox backup catcher excelled. Per Baseball Savant, in fact, he excelled to an extent he never had before. This was particularly true on pitches in the zone, as he made contact on a whopping 94 percent of those swings, the highest rate of his career and 12 percentage points higher than his career rate. That led to an overall swinging strike rate of just 13 percent, which comes in as a clear career-best. It’s sort of the opposite of what we were talking about with Martín Pérez yesterday (linked below). Luck is up to the gods, but you can put yourself in a position to benefit (or in Pérez’s case, not benefit) by just putting the ball in play in the first place.
I would also point to Plawecki’s performance against breaking balls, which has been something of a measuring stick for his overall performance over his career. Looking at his time in the majors, again with help from Baseball Savant, for the most part he has been eaten alive by breaking balls. In 2019, for example, he put up a wOBA (on the same scale as OBP) of just .182 against those pitches with an expected wOBA (based on quality of contact) not much higher.
This year, though, the wOBA jumped up to .338. That’s not a huge number that jumps off the page, but it’s much higher than it’d been in most years. In fact, the only other season of his career he had a mark even as high as .260 was back in 2017, which was that aforementioned other season in which he finished above-average overall by wRC+. Again, sample size issues are abound, but the performance against breaking balls seems to be something of a barometer for his overall success at the plate.
While Plawecki was able to provide well above-average offense as a backup in 2020, the defense actually took a bit of a step back based on the metrics. Small sample blah blah blah, but his defense and framing specifically have been a bit all over the place throughout his career. There was reason for optimism on this front as he took a major step forward in Cleveland in 2019, but that didn’t carry over to 2020. According to FanGraphs’ framing metrics, he cost the team three runs with his framing this past summer. For whatever it may be worth, just by my eye Plawecki didn’t appear to be particularly bad, but the metrics paint him in a more negative light.
I would also point to the catcher’s lack of patience as a skill that could be refined. It wasn’t quite as noticeable this year thanks to the aforementioned batted ball luck, but as that inevitably regresses moving forward he can cancel out some of the hit his overall numbers take if he walks more. In 2020, he walked under six percent of the time, a career-low rate. He has been better than that in the past, getting that rate up in the 10-12 percent range with the Mets. It really is as simple as just not chasing bad pitches, too, as his 29 percent swing rate on pitches out of the zone in 2020 represented a career-high. Even getting that rate up to a league-average rate around eight or nine percent would go a long way towards canceling some of that batted ball regression.
The Big Question
The short answer is yes, because he made a lot of contact and it mostly worked out for him. As we’ve discussed, though, it’s not quite that simple because the quality of his contact only slightly improved and certainly not to the extent his BABIP may suggest. That said, in that linked post I referenced his struggles against fastballs in 2019, and he did improve upon that with his wOBA jumping from .318 to .351. That said, his expected wOBA actually fell from .314 to .281, so again there could be luck involved. But overall, as I said at the top, he provided the punch that was so often lacked when Sandy Léon was the backup.
Looking ahead to 2021
Plawecki is arbitration-eligible, and while Deivy Grullón has some promise as the third catcher right now, I would be surprised if Plawecki was not kept around for more backup duty in the coming year. As we’ve discussed, there is probably some heavy regression coming to the expectations shouldn’t be what we saw in 2020, but he can fall a long way and still be a useful backup. I think there’s also a non-zero chance they sell high on him, though I can’t imagine that would net them all that great of a player so it may not be worth opening up that hole on the roster.