Kevin Plawecki may not have been as heralded a prospect as Chicago Cubs catcher Kyle Schwarber, or even his teammate, Travis d'Arnaud. But Plawecki looms as a very important player as the New York Mets make a playoff push in the second half of the season.
There has been a lot of attention paid to the Mets’ young pitchers and how effective they’ve been. But perhaps overlooked is the impact Plawecki has had on that.
Plawecki is hitting .231 with a .599 OPS, but that’s secondary to the important number for him. He currently ranks second in the majors with nine Defensive Runs Saved.
Why he’s a valuable defender
The sample is small -- only 411 innings -- but so far Plawecki has excelled in an area vital to catching success: He’s good at making sure pitches in the strike zone are called strikes and is good at “stealing strikes” -- getting pitches outside the strike zone called for strikes.
Baseball Info Solutions, a company that provides data to major league teams and media, has charted every catcher in baseball and found that Plawecki ranks second in the majors with 59 “extra strikes gained” in his 411 innings.
How does Plawecki compare to his teammates?
The three other Mets catchers this season (d'Arnaud, Anthony Recker and Johnny Monell) are a combined 17 strikes below average (though d'Arnaud had 56 extra strikes in 909 innings last season, he has minus-2 in 2015).
In short, Plawecki has fared really well. There’s no guarantee it will continue, but the thoughts Keith Law shared in preseason make me think there’s a better chance it will than it won’t.
“(Plawecki) has great hands behind the plate and should be a strong framer pitchers want to throw to, with a good feel for the softer aspects of catching, such as game-calling,” Law wrote.
The pitchers seem to like him
A few weeks ago during a Mets telecast, sideline reporter Steve Gelbs detailed the homework the Mets catchers are required to do: They have to provide comprehensive reports on how to pitch each batter, then lead a meeting of the pitching staff to make sure all the pitchers are on the same page.
We're not around Plawecki every day, but we’d infer he’s handling that well. Case in point would be to look at how the Mets handled Arizona Diamondbacks slugger Paul Goldschmidt in the series before the break.
The Mets’ game plan appeared to be to work Goldschmidt away as often as possible, which makes sense based on his heat map and data showing his performance by pitch location.
Mets pitchers threw 29 of 48 pitches to Goldschmidt to the outside edge or off the outside corner. When they came inside, they were careful to miss in locations where it would be impossible for Goldschmidt to drive the ball. And they kept the ball away from the center of the plate.
The strategy worked. Goldschmidt went 1-for-11 with a sacrifice fly.
Catcher ERA is not known as a predictive stat. But Mets pitchers have a 2.58 ERA when pitching to Plawecki, compared with 3.93 for the other three catchers on the roster, in nearly as many innings.
That’s not to say d’Arnaud won’t be able to match that when he returns (and we can note that Monell has a 2.45 ERA in 77 innings), but given what Law and other scouting sources have said, we have a feeling the difference between Plawecki and his teammates is not a fluke.
Why you shouldn’t worry about his hitting
The issue for Plawecki is that he hasn’t hit yet. But in his last 20 games, he’s hitting .288 with a .716 OPS.
Early struggles aren't unusual. Remember what d’Arnaud was like as a rookie? He had similar issues. When we asked a scout about that last season, he pointed out that it’s rare for catchers to be great hitters right off the bat.
“That position is very challenging in term of learning pitching staff, getting big league hitters out and being a big league hitter," said the scout. "There’s a lot going on. He's heading in the right direction.
“It’s like putting your food in the microwave and complaining why it takes 60 seconds to heat up,” the scout added. “If you saw Yadier Molina his first three seasons, no one would have predicted he’d become the catcher he’s become. You’ve gotta be patient. They don’t get better on our schedule, they get better on theirs.”
Plawecki hit well enough to be named Big Ten Player of the Year. He hit well enough to bat better than .300 in both Savannah and Binghamton. Chances are his bat will come around.
What does it all mean?
Why is Plawecki important? At this point in his career, d’Arnaud seems to be a significant injury risk. The Mets need someone they can put in every day and feel good about. And if d’Arnaud plays and stays healthy, they need someone for whom there is a minimal dropoff in value when his services are needed.