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2021 in Review: Kevin Plawecki played his role

And also started the post-homer celebration.

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Cleveland Indians Vs. Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Welcome to our 2021 Boston 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 2021. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player, describing the season in a sentence, looking at the positives from the year as well as negatives, looking back at our one big question from our season preview and looking ahead to the 2022 season. Today we look at Kevin Plawecki’s 2021.

2021 in one sentence

Kevin Plawecki was a perfectly cromulent backup catcher, having a big run with the bat in the middle of the season that lifted his overall numbers to a tough better than average.

The Positives

The thing we’ll remember Plawecki for the most from this past season is probably something that is not quite related to on-the-field play, but we won’t start there because it feels cheap. So instead, I would point to his ability to put the ball in play, which is the engine of his game at the plate. While he has other shortcomings we’ll get to below, Boston’s backup catcher consistently puts the ball in play in an era where that is a rarity. He struck out just 15 percent of the time this past season, continuing a trend of increased contact over the last few seasons. Fastballs in particular were key for Plawecki, as he whiffed just eight percent of the time against heat.

Good things can happen when you simply put the ball in play, which is something we saw from the veteran in 2021. The rest of his profile beyond the strikeouts wasn’t particularly special, but he had some luck on batted balls and that alone was enough to put him above-average at the plate. Plawecki finished the season with a 102 wRC+, which is well above-average for his position. How sustainable that kind of line can be is an open question (though he is projected to be about league-average on FanGraphs), but for 2021 it was more than enough for his role.

And here’s the part where we mention the not-on-the-field thing, which of course is the team’s laundry cart celebration. This actually started towards the end of 2020, but it really caught steam this season when the team was, you know, good. It is said that the celebration was the creation of Plawecki and Jason Varitek, and nearly every time someone did take a ride he could be seen in the action. It was one of the many fun parts of the season, and I’ll remember his role on the team fondly for that very reason for years to come.

The Negatives

The thing that holds Plawecki back the most from being a starter in this league is his lack of power. His defense is fine (more on that later), and he makes a lot of contact, but contact alone isn’t enough even at the catching position. Players either need to pair that with some semblance of power or patience, and typically we see the former from catchers. But it’s not the case with Plawecki, who finished the season with only three homers and a .105 Isolated Power (SLG - AVG). He hits his share of fly balls, but the swing just isn’t going to produce the kind of hard contact he would need to put more balls over the fence.

In addition to the lack of power, I’d also point to Plawecki’s performance when batters in front of him reached base. Granted, he was a bench player and we’re digging into some splits that will inevitably lead to small samples, but we’re talking about what happened not what will happen. Even if the performances don’t provide any insight into what can be expected in the future, he still performed worse when runners were on base and production was at a premium. In those situations, he actually had better plate discipline but the quality of contact tanked and his wRC+ dropped from 115 with the bases empty to 84 with men on.

Championship Series - Boston Red Sox v Houston Astros - Game Six Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Big Question

Can Kevin Plawecki become a plus defensive catcher again?

I think I have to go with no on this one, though it’s not quite as bad as it should have been. A plus defensive catcher is a hard bar to clear, and to me Plawecki didn’t quite get there in 2021, but that doesn’t mean he was bad. The veteran did bounce back and was something around average, which for a backup who was better than average at the plate, the Red Sox will take. In terms of framing he was much better than he had been in 2020, working wonders on the corners and making up real ground on balls down in the zone towards the first base side of the plate. On the other hand, his overall framing was still just neutral, and he had real trouble controlling the running game. He’s certainly not a disaster behind the plate, but he’s not plus at this point either.

2022 and Beyond

Plawecki is arbitration-eligible this winter and was tendered a contract by the Red Sox on Tuesday night. There is still a chance he could be traded, I suppose, but that would be a surprising turn of events. Instead, it’s more likely that he is back on the bench for the 2022 season, which seems to line up as likely being his last with the organization. The leash could also be shorter this year if he gets off to a slow start, as Boston has two other catchers in the high minors in Connor Wong and Ronaldo Hernández who are just about ready to take over that part-time role.