Baseball is in the middle of a rules revolution - trying to become a faster, more athletic, more entertaining product for the fans. Like with any game, as the rules change, so do the best strategies and ideal skillsets. Among the most drastic changes we’ve seen this season is the increase in stolen bases. Through the first month of the season, stolen bases are up about 88% (738 vs. 392) and the success rate is up about 6% (72.1% vs. 78.8%). As the season progresses and pitchers adjust to holding runners with the pitch clock, I’d bet the change isn’t quite as drastic, but stolen bases will be up regardless.
Without a way to control the running games, a mere base hit can become a runner in scoring position in just a few pitches. The Red Sox found this out in almost immediately, as the Orioles swiped ten bases in the first two games of the season and scored 18 runs in the process. While catcher has always been a defense-first position, throwing runners out is more important than ever. That’s where Connor Wong excels. He currently possesses the third-best pop time in the majors, measured by Baseball Savant and it shows. Take a look at this throw from earlier this season:
That’s in no way a good pitch to throw on, and Vidal Brujan can FLY. Wong picks the ball from the dirt, makes a clean exchange, and throws an absolute laser to nail Brujan at second. That’s not a flash in the pan either, he’s thrown out eight of sixteen base stealers this season, including two on Sunday afternoon. That type of consistency not only generates outs, it also discourages runners from even trying. Trea Turner was on first late in Sunday’s game. Leading by a few runs, it was the perfect opportunity to try to move into scoring position. Turner, one of the league’s fastest runners, happily stayed at first. Connor Wong’s arm probably had something to do with that.
Playing catcher is about more than just throwing runners out; you also have to receive the ball. Defensively, there are two major aspects to that: blocking the ball, and pitch framing. According to Baseball Savant’s catching leaderboard, Wong is slightly below average in each of these two areas. Framing in particular is one area where I’ve thought Wong could do a better job, here’s an example from earlier this year.
You probably weren’t going to get the call here anyways, but Wong didn’t even attempt to frame the ball. Rays scored on the next batter. pic.twitter.com/oCo1Fn0RoE— Jake Roy (@Jake3Roy) April 11, 2023
I’d imagine framing is one area that Wong will improve over time, as he gains experience and improves his chemistry with his pitchers. We could also see robot umpires in the near future, and then framing will be a lost art.
Defense is vitally important under the new rules, but there are two sides to the game. On the season, Wong is hitting .257 with three home runs and an OPS+ of 106. With his defense, that’s more than enough to be the Red Sox’ franchise catcher. If he did continue on that pace, which is wishful thinking, he’d probably become be a perennial all-star. It’s still early in the season, and it’s possible that experiences some growing pains, but there are some takeaways from that small sample. The largest of which is, Wong has some serious pop. He’s currently in the 93rd percentile of max exit velocity and the 74th percentile of average exit velocity. This isn’t new, either. In the two seasons before the pandemic put a pause on minor league baseball, Wong hit 43 home runs in 223 games. He isn’t the biggest guy at 6’1”, 185, but the power is very real. On top of that, Kevin Youkilis briefly mentioned that Wong has been working with Adam Duvall, who told him to not worry about using the whole ballpark. The results, in a very small sample, back that up - he’s pulling the ball more than ever and using the monster to his advantage. It’s his first full season in the majors, and his approach will likely need to improve to remain a quality hitter, but Wong won’t reach arbitration for a few more years and has the potential to be a fixture in the Red Sox lineup for a very long time.