Connor Wong Is Breaking out in Boston

Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Sox may never entirely live down the 2020 trade of Mookie Betts, but four years and change later, Boston’s last man standing from that deal is enjoying a breakout. Catcher Connor Wong just reeled off a 17-game hitting streak that spanned four weeks, and even made a case for a spot on the AL All-Star team, though he fell short on that front.

The 28-year-old Wong began his streak with a single off White Sox right-hander Jake Woodford on June 6, and added another single off Tim Hill later in the game. Despite taking a three-day paternity leave from June 24–27, he started 16 of Boston’s next 23 games, sprinkling in four other two-hit games.

With his single off Trevor Rogers last Tuesday, Wong extended his streak to 17 games, the longest by any Red Sox player this season and tied for the seventh-longest of any player this year; Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto is one of three other players who also had a 17-gamer. The longest hitting streak ever for a catcher is 34 games, set by the Padres’ Benito Santiago in 1987. The closest any catcher has come to approaching Santiago in the last decade was in 2019, when the Mets’ Wilson Ramos went 23 games; all of the other hitting streaks by catchers of at least 20 games happened in 2003 or earlier.

Wong didn’t make it that far. His streak finally ended on July 4 against the Marlins, though to be fair, he didn’t enter the game until the 10th inning, when he pinch-hit for Reese McGuire and struck out against Andrew Nardi. He got another chance in the 11th with the Red Sox having taken a 4-2 lead, but struck out again, this time versus Calvin Faucher.

Even with an 0-for-11 slide since the streak ended, Wong is hitting .310/.365/.441 (124 wRC+) with seven home runs across 252 plate appearances. He’s short of qualifying for the batting title by 24 PA, but among hitters in either league with at least 240 PA, only eight have a higher batting average. Within that same group, Wong’s OBP is good enough for 26th, and among players whose primary position is catcher, his wRC+ is fifth behind the Dodgers’ Will Smith (136), the Brewers’ William Contreras, the Orioles’ Adley Rutschman, and the Twins’ Ryan Jeffers (all with 128). Rutschman was voted the starting catcher for the AL in next week’s All-Star Game, while Contreras will start for the NL; both have about 50% more plate appearances than Wong, not to mention better defensive numbers (we’ll get to those), but that’s pretty impressive company.

It’s also miles beyond anything Wong had done before in parts of three seasons at the major league level, and probably beyond anything the Dodgers envisioned when they drafted him in the third round in 2017 out of the University of Houston. After coming to the Red Sox along with Alex Verdugo and Jeter Downs in the reconfigured exchange for Betts, David Price, and cash in February 2020 — a year that he spent at Boston’s alternate training site and on the taxi squad without playing a competitive game — Wong played six games in the majors in ’21, and then 27 in ’22, spending the balance of those two seasons at Triple-A Worcester. Last year, in his first full season in the majors, he hit .235/.288/.385 (80 wRC+) with nine homers and eight steals over 403 PA. He entered this year as the owner of a career 77 wRC+ in 473 PA, with a daunting 33.2% strikeout rate.

The biggest change for the 2024 edition of Wong is that he’s cut his strikeout rate to 19.8%; his 13.4-point drop from last year is within an eyelash of largest in the majors:

Largest Decreases in Strikeout Rate, 2023–24
Player Team 2023 2024 Change
Elehuris Montero COL 36.2% 22.7% -13.5%
Connor Wong BOS 33.3% 19.8% -13.4%
Ryan O’Hearn BAL 22.3% 10.7% -11.6%
Brenton Doyle COL 35.0% 24.9% -10.1%
Tyler Stephenson CIN 26.1% 17.7% -8.6%
Patrick Bailey SFG 28.3% 20.5% -7.8%
Christopher Morel CHC 31.0% 23.6% -7.4%
Mickey Moniak LAA 35.0% 27.9% -7.1%
Ryan Jeffers MIN 27.8% 20.9% -6.9%
Anthony Rizzo NYY 23.0% 16.5% -6.5%
Minimum 300 plate appearances in 2023 and 150 in ’24.

Wong is making much more contact, and he’s getting a bit lucky once he does (which I’ll get to). His improvement owes to changes in both mechanics and approach. As Red Sox hitting coach Pete Fatse explained to the Boston Globe’s Julian McWilliams last month, “One, there’s an emphasis on being as direct as possible with his swing path, which has led to more zone contact… Two, he’s balancing a more aggressive approach within his game plan… Being prepared to swing from pitch one in the area he is looking.”

Compared to last season, Wong has closed his stance (though lately his front foot has been drifting a little more outisde), bent his knees a bit more, and raised his hands, with his bat less upright at the start of his swing. You can see the comparison in the video compilation below; the first two of these doubles were hit last year, the second two are from this season, all at Fenway Park, which should aid as a visual reference point:

At Scout Girl Report, Andrea Arcadipane has a more detailed visual breakdown highlighting other changes, including Wong’s elimination of a toe tap and better weight distribution on his front foot.

While Wong’s overall swing rate has barely budged from last year’s 52.3%, he’s cut his chase rate from 35.2% to 29.5% while raising his in-zone swing rate from 68% to 73%. His overall swinging strike rate has dropped from 15.7% to 13.2%, and his whiff rates against just about every pitch type have dropped; as a result, his performance against each pitch type has improved. Here’s the broad-strokes picture:

Connor Wong vs. Pitch Types, 2023–24
Season Type % PA wOBA xwOBA EV Whiff%
2023 Breaking 32.7% 133 .272 .246 90.1 43.8%
2024 Breaking 32.9% 87 .307 .256 85.5 37.3%
2023 Fastball 57.1% 223 .328 .308 87.1 27.1%
2024 Fastball 55.3% 129 .400 .352 86.0 21.3%
2023 Offspeed 10.2% 46 .174 .181 84.9 26.4%
2024 Offspeed 11.8% 32 .341 .283 83.1 18.8%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
All statistics through July 6.

Location-wise, here’s a comparison between 2023 and ’24; Wong’s swinging more often at pitches from the middle of the strike zone in, and from the middle down:

Note that while Wong has cut his chase rate in all four quadrants, he hasn’t really laid off pitches in the upper or outer thirds of the strike zone to a significantly greater degree than before. Even so, he’s doing much less damage in those areas, and more in the middle, middle-in, middle-down, and down-and-in locations:

Going back to the table above, you may have noticed that Wong’s exit velocities are nothing to write home about, and likewise that he’s significantly outperforming his expected results. For all of his success, he’s actually not hitting the ball hard as often as last year:

Connor Wong Statcast Expected Stats
Season BBE EV Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2023 241 89.1 9.1% 37.8% .235 .211 .385 .361 .292 .274
2024 181 86.6 4.4% 34.3% .310 .249 .441 .375 .354 .306

Wong’s barrel rate is less than half what it was in 2023, and places him in just the 17th percentile, with his average exit velocity (14th percentile) and hard-hit rate (23rd percentile) in similar territory. It’s not like he’s Luis Arraez either, making up for a middling average exit velocity and/or barrel rate with a high sweet spot percentage or a high rate of squared-up swings. Wong’s 27.6% sweet spot percentage places in just the sixth percentile, and while his 72.1 mph average bat speed is above average, his 23.1% rate of squared-up balls per swing is down in the 28th percentile.

In other words, Wong isn’t exactly pummeling his way to that 124 wRC+. Rather, he’s dinking and dunking in hits here and there, using the whole field more often than last year; his pull rate has dropped from 45.6% to 38.7%. He’s bunted safely three times, beaten out four infield hits thanks to his 78th-percentile sprint speed, and snuck a whole bunch of balls through the infield. Check out the spray chart:

Wong’s 61-point gap between his batting average and xBA is the highest among Statcast qualifiers (2.1 PA per team game); meanwhile, his 66-point gap between his slugging percentage and xSLG is 12th, and his 48-point gap between his wOBA and xWOBA is sixth. All of which is to say that what he’s doing doesn’t appear to be all that sustainable, but even so, you can see in comparing his 2023 and ’24 numbers that he’s raised his baseline enough to be an above-average hitter for a catcher — and those aren’t exactly growing on trees these days.

As for Wong’s defense, it’s a mixed bag, which may not be too surprising given that he didn’t start catching regularly until his sophomore season at Houston, and continued to play a fair bit of second and third base while in the Dodgers’ organization. He’s thrown out 25% of would-be base thieves, a four-point improvement relative to last year and two points ahead of the league average. By FanGraphs’ methodology, his framing has improved from -9.6 runs in 944 innings to -1.1 runs in 471 innings; by Statcast, he’s gone from -5 runs to -3 runs, which actually prorates as a decline on a per-inning basis. Statcast is also down on his pitch-blocking (-2 runs in both seasons), with his eight blocks below average in the “easy” category this year sticking out like a sore thumb. His -6 FRV via Statcast is the majors’ second-lowest mark among catchers, ahead of only the Padres’ Luis Campusano (-9) and tied with the Astros’ Yainer Diaz. By comparison, McGuire grades out as average by our framing numbers and one run above per Statcast, with 1 FRV overall in 327 innings. However, McGuire has hit for just a 64 wRC+, and in terms of WAR, Wong has a 1.6 to 0.1 edge.

The Red Sox are hardly disappointed in Wong’s defense. Catching coach Jason Varitek recently praised Wong’s defense to the Globe’s Peter Abraham:

“On the catching end, he’s not young in age but he’s young in reps… He has an aptitude about him that makes him special. You hope that in everybody’s career, every year you get better. It’s been a joy to watch and be a part of.”

…Varitek doesn’t think [the framing statistics are] entirely accurate, pointing out the many variables that affect framing. The Sox feel Wong’s framing has been better than the statistics indicate.

“He’s improving his consistency and having the ability to self-adjust during a game,” Varitek said. “Those are good points. We continue to work on those things because he wants to be great at everything.”

Varitek also pointed out that shorter catchers — Wong is generously listed at 6 feet 1 inch — tend to have lower grades.

I’m not sure if that last assertion is true, but regardless, I do think Wong deserves to share in the credit for a team that ranks seventh in the majors in ERA (3.62) and fifth in FIP (3.71). The rotation and bullpen both projected to rank 20th in WAR in their respective categories in our preseason Positional Power Rankings but instead are eighth and third in the majors, respectively.

As for the AL All-Star team, Wong lost out to Salvador Perez for the backup spot behind Rutschman, with super-duper utilityman David Fry — what else can you call a guy who catches and plays the four corners as well? — selected as well, though he was listed on the ballots as a DH. It’s possible Wong could join the team as an injury replacement, though that probably depends upon one of those three players needing to forgo the game.

Beyond that, Wong’s current success isn’t likely to salvage the Betts trade, but with 1.6 WAR so far, he’s got a very good chance of turning in the best season of any player the Red Sox received in return, with Verdugo’s 1.9 WAR from 2021 a rather unimposing total to beat. Unlike Verdugo, who was largely a disappointment in Boston (and has tailed off substantially after a promising start in New York), Wong has panned out better than expected, and he’s still got plenty to give to the Red Sox.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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15 days ago

Agree with all of this but something that wasn’t mentioned: for some reason Connor Wong was absolutely atrocious vs. LHP prior to this year, his career wRC+ was 22, which I felt like couldn’t hold. I had said this in the positional rankings in the offseason:

I’m going to pat myself in the back now because this year against LHP he has a 156 wRC+, and it’s not all luck either as his xwOBA vs them is .342 which is really solid. If he can hit lefties well, hold his own against righties, and maintain his current defense, that’s a fine player to give reps to.