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 Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. 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, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Connor Wong.
The Question: Can Connor Wong add more patience to his offensive profile?
People are mainly focused on the here and now with the Red Sox, which is entirely fair considering their run to the ALCS last season. But in looking even towards the medium-term future, one of the big questions for the organization is what the catching situation will look like. Their reported pursuit or former Pirates, and current Marlins, catcher Jacob Stallings indicates they’re thinking about that too. After a down year, it’s not clear what Christian Vázquez’ ideal role will be a in a few year’s time, and Kevin Plawecki is a solid backup but doesn’t project to be more than that moving forward in his career. Boston does have a solid stable of catching prospects ranging from guys like Ronaldo Hernández to Kole Cottam to 2021 draftee Nathan Hickey, but for now all of them project as backups for one reason or another.
In that same tier as Hernández, which is to say a good-not-great catching prospect on the cusp of the majors (and in this case with a small amount of big-league experience) is Connor Wong, who we are discussing today. The former third round selection shot his way through the Dodgers system, coming out of college and feasting on lower minors pitching. He ultimately became the third piece to come over to Boston from LA in the Mookie Betts deal, and after the 2020 minor-league season was cancelled by COVID, Wong made his debut in the Red Sox organization last year.
It was something of a frustrating season for the minor-league catcher, who didn’t really get the reps you’d hope for with a prospect like him that shows potential but also is a bit rough around the edges. Due to both injury and the fact that he was often on the taxi squad which accompanied the big-league team on the road, Wong only played in 50 games for Triple-A Worcester along with six in the majors, which was his first experience at that level. It’s fair, I think, to describe his .256/.288/.442 line at Worcester as disappointing — it’s a below-average line by wRC+ — though you also have to consider the stop-and-go nature of his season.
That being said, Wong is also at this point entering his age-26 season, and with Hernández also on the 40-man and also projected to be at Worcester this season, the former Dodgers farmhand needs to prove that he is the guy who should be seen as the current third catcher and the backstop in this system with the brightest future. He has plenty of attributes in favor of that, most notably plus power that helped him put up Isolated Powers (SLG - AVG) over .200 in each of his professional seasons prior to his down 2021. Wong is also a bit more athletic than Hernández and projects to be a better pitch framer behind the plate, along with possessing the versatility to play elsewhere around the diamond.
On the other hand, he also has a ton of swing and miss in his game, and as noted in his scouting write up at Baseball America, his pull-heavy approach makes it easy for pitchers to take advantage of him on pitches on the outer half of the plate and off that edge. In a way, Wong is something of a poster boy for this generation of hitter, with big power and just as big swing and miss. We’ve seen that kind of profile succeed before, and theoretically it’s even more likely to succeed at the catcher position where the bar is lower. That said, a big reason why it works is because it’s also accompanied by a strong proclivity for drawing walks.
With Wong, that hasn’t really been the case. He’s been able to get by against less advanced pitching despite regularly drawing walks at a below-average rate, but better pitchers will be able to do things like take advantage of that pull-happy approach, and his poor pitch recognition will be further exploited. Considering how often he strikes out — he’s generally carried strikeout rates around 30 percent throughout his professional career — and his tendency to pull the ball, which in turn makes him easier to defend, he’s unlikely to carry high batting averages. So even with plus power, he’s going to need walks to supplement his on-base percentage enough that he can be a starter in this league, even at a position with a dearth of offensive talent.
If you’re looking for some reason for optimism here, I would go back to that aforementioned BA write up in which they note that he struggled with pitches on the outer half against Triple-A competition. In the same write up, they also mention that he seemingly started to make an adjustment in the majors, taking what the pitchers were giving him and going the other way. Now, this obviously doesn’t have anything to do with walks on the surface, and we’re talking about an infinitesimal sample size of only 14 plate appearances (half of which were strikeouts), but it shows the ability to recognize a weakness and adjust. When it comes down to it, if Wong is going to walk more it’s simply going to be about making adjustments. Period.
It seems to me that Hernández has been the guy getting more helium this spring among Red Sox catching prospects than Wong, and indeed the former is ranked more highly by our community votes as well, but the latter still has a good case for being the better future player. Defensively he’s a more athletic player who should be able to do the job receiving behind the dish better than Hernández, which is hugely important until the automatic strike zone is implemented. Wong also has the aforementioned versatility to play other positions around the diamond as well. Where he lags behind, or at least does not jump ahead, is at the plate. Wong is a prototypical modern hitter in a lot of ways. He just needs to figure out a way to better recognize bad pitchers out of the hand and lay off, matching his big power with a workable OBP even if he’s not getting a lot of hits.