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One Big Question: Can Kevin Plawecki get his defense back?

It’s probably more important than his bat, given the roster makeup.

Minnesota Twins v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Kevin Plawecki.

The Question: Can Kevin Plawecki become a plus defensive catcher again?

There are plenty of issues on the Red Sox roster. I don’t think I’m breaking any news here, but if I am I apologize for having to be the one to tell you that. One place where they look to be pretty well set, at least in the short-term, is behind the plate. Most of that has to do with Christian Vázquez being their starter, as he has developed into one of the five or so best all-around catchers in the game. But even at the backup spot, Kevin Plawecki showed up in a big way in 2020, largely exceeding expectations in his first season in Boston.

Most of that success came at the plate rather than behind it, as he was a much more productive hitter than anyone would have predicted before the games began. He was a backup catcher in a shortened season so the sample is obviously quite small, but over 89 plate appearances he hit .341/.393/.463 for a 134 wRC+. No one’s really expecting him to repeat that level of production, but there’s a long way to fall while still being a more-than-acceptable backup catcher. For that reason, it’s not really the offense I’m concerned with when talking about Plawecki’s contributions to the 2021 Red Sox. Rather, it’s the defense.

While I do want to focus on the work behind the plate, it is still worth taking a quick look at the offense. As I said, that production is coming down. I would bet a lot of money on that. That was far and away the best season he’s ever had at the plate, with his previous career high wRC+ being 107. His 2020 numbers, again, came in a small sample and was boosted by a wildly unsustainable .403 batting average on balls in play. It’s worth noting that Plawecki made a tremendous amount of contact on pitches in the zone, so if that repeats he could still put up a nice BABIP, but it’s still coming down signficiantly from .403. The projections mostly peg him in the high 80s in terms of wRC+, and that both seems right and would be perfectly fine for a backup catcher.

The defense, however, is much more difficult to get a grasp of. If you’ll recall, when the Red Sox originally signed Plawecki before spring training last winter, it was actually the defense that was given as the main reason. Back in 2019 with Cleveland, the now-30-year-old (he just turned 30 a couple weeks ago) put up a brutal 64 wRC+ but was a plus defensive catcher, which gave him value as a backup. Much of that success behind the plate came from framing, which was worth just about four runs by FanGraphs’ measure.

Last season, things took a step back. Again, there are sample size issues here, but he basically went in the exact opposite direction. Looking once more at FanGraphs’ framing metrics, Plawecki cost the Red Sox three runs with his framing. We should note here as well that these framing numbers are a counting stat, meaning that the value would be even worse in a normal sample size. Looking at his career as a whole, he’s really been all over the place here, with three seasons as a clear positive with pitch framing and three seasons as a clear negative. As long as human umpires exist, pitch framing is far and away the most important contribution a catcher can make on either side of the ball.

Thanks to Baseball Savant, we are able to take a deeper look at where exactly Plawecki has had issues with framing, particularly in the context of 2020. They break down the framing into specific edges of the zone, so we can compare 2020 to 2019 and see where the big differences were. For Plawecki, the zones to watch are clearly at the bottom as well as left-handed batter’s box side of the plate.

It would be great if the Red Sox could get something close to the offense they got from Plawecki last year to come back again in 2021. But it would mostly be a bonus, as Boston’s lineup should be able to survive without that kind of output from their backup catcher. The pitching, though, could use all of the help it can get, and the biggest source of help a pitcher can get is from their catcher making sure as many fringe pitches get called for strikes as possible. That’s something Plawecki has shown an ability to do, and he’s done it as recently as 2019, but it hasn’t been consistent. This will be what I’ll be watching for in his games in the coming season, and particularly on those zones mentioned above at the lower edge as well as the corner closest to the left-handed batter’s box.