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 Kevin Plawecki.
The Question: Can Kevin Plawecki become more of a run producer?
I suspect when we look back at Kevin Plawecki’s time in Boston a few years from now, we’ll mostly remember him for his role in implementing the home run cart celebration, one of many reasons last year’s squad won the hearts and minds of fans in the city. (Of course, the celebration started in 2020, but roughly five people watched those games so it’s understandably more associated with last season.) That’s not a bad legacy to have, but it should be noticed, too, that the veteran has been a really solid backup catcher for this team the last couple of years as well. Plawecki’s defense is such that he’s not really someone you want as your lead catcher, particularly for a team like Boston with all of its pitching questions, but he provides enough at the plate and just enough behind it to be probably in the top half of backup catchers in all of baseball.
Last season was a particularly encouraging one for Plawecki, whose offense was so strong at one point that he was pulling starts at DH while Alex Cora rode the hot hand. At the end of the year, the veteran backstop was hitting .287/.349/.389 for a 102 wRC+ that puts him right around league-average, which in turn puts him well above average for the catcher position. Obviously it was not over a full season’s worth of plate appearances, as he accrued only 174 over the season, and in a part-time role he was helped by typically getting favorable matchups, but when he was called upon he produced at a good clip.
It’s not hard to see what leads to success for him at the plate. While this wasn’t always the case in his career, particularly when he was first establishing himself in the majors with the Mets, these days Plawecki is one of the better contact hitters in the game. He struck out just 15 percent of the time last season, which is less than a percentage point lower than his rate in the shortened 2020 season. It’s also the third consecutive season in which he finished with a strikeout rate below 20 percent (league-average was a shade over 23 percent last season) and the fourth time in the last five years.
In an era where pitchers are racking up strikeouts at seemingly exponentially greater rates with each passing year, simply being able to put the ball in play on a consistent basis is a valuable skill to possess. Granted, Plawecki doesn’t pair that with a whole lot of walks, but that appears to be a side effect of the contact more than any other issue. He generally has quick at bats because he makes so much contact, so that reduces his walk totals. Looking at his plate discipline, though, he still makes good decisions on when to swing with a lower-than-league-average swing rate on pitches out of the zone and a roughly average rate on pitches in the zone. Adding to his seven percent walk rate would be helpful, but if it comes at the cost of more strikeouts I don’t think that trade-off is worth it.
One area in which Plawecki does not excel, however, is with his power production. The veteran catcher finished last season with an Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) of just .102, and he hasn’t been above .122 since 2018. For context, the league-average rate last year was .167, and catchers were only a hair behind at .163. Obviously the contact prowess discussed above does serve to cancel out some of the issues that could stem from this lack of power, but it does seem like there’s a possibility that Plawecki can add a little more impact with his contact without more than a minor adjustment and some better luck.
Typically when we see a player with an ISO as low as Plawecki’s was not only last year but consistently over the last few years, the expectation is that there is a lot of weak contact. Making contact is great, but if it’s hit weakly you’re relying on a whole lot of luck to turn it into production. That’s not the case here, though. At least last season, Plawecki was within a percentage point of the league-average hard-hit rate according to Baseball Savant, his average exit velocity of 87.3 mph was exactly a mile per hour below league-average, and his 6.1 percent barrel rate was only seven-tenths of a percentage point below league-average. All of which is to say, he was a little worse than average with his quality of contact, but on the surface at least it doesn’t seem like it should translate into this poor level of power production.
There are two possible explanations I want to examine here. The first is more about the data itself than anything with Plawecki. These metrics like hard-hit rate and average exit velocity are great overhead views, but they don’t always tell the picture we think it does. With Plawecki, for example, it seems very possible that while he had a lot of hard-hit balls (which Baseball Savant defines as anything hit 95 mph or harder), they may have all been hovering around 95 mph. If two players each hit 10 batted balls, and one has five that are exactly 95 mph and the other has five that are over 100 mph, they each have a 50 percent hard-hit rate but clearly one was making better contact.
FanGraphs also calculates hard-hit rate but uses a different, more subjective methodology, and they have Plawecki’s hard-hit rate at 26.5 percent, 8.3 percentage points below the same metric at Baseball Savant. Without being able to really dig into the numbers and get a definitive answer, my hypothesis here would be that Plawecki hit a lot of balls right around 95 mph that were called hard-hit by Baseball Savant, but not qualified as such by FanGraphs’ methodology.
But even with that being said, there may be a path for Plawecki to at least hit more doubles to get those power numbers up. I’m certainly not expecting to see him suddenly go on 30-homer paces, but he hits the ball hard enough even with the points made above to have more than seven doubles in 173 plate appearances (a 24-double pace over 600 plate appearances). It comes down largely to taking advantage of his park. A few years ago, Plawecki used to pull the ball at a league-average or higher rate on a consistent basis, but the last few years has gone with a more all-fields approach. Given that big ol’ wall in left field at Fenway, pulling more balls should lead to more doubles, and thus more run production when he comes up with runners on base.
As we said at the top, the current version of Plawecki is still a very solid backup catcher, and for the last two years he’s safely been better at the plate than the league-average catcher. There is another step to be taken at the plate, though, and that is with his power. If he can find a way to take better advantage of Fenway Park without sacrificing his high contact rates — far from a sure thing, to be fair! — then we can start to see him creeping closer to league-average in the power department, which in turn could make him a top-tier backup catcher who can provide an important weapon off the bench late in games as well.