Connor Wong made the Red Sox’s Opening Day 26-man roster after beating out the more experienced Jorge Alfaro for the second catcher spot behind Reese McGuire.
Wong exceeded his rookie limits during the 2022 season. But this year marks his first time making an Opening Day roster after spending the majority of 2021 and ‘22 at Triple-A Worcester. He’s beginning to feel like a big leaguer here to stay.
“I mean, I’m still taking it day by day and trying to work hard and play well,” Wong said. “I don’t feel crazy comfortable. But I feel more (comfortable).”
Defense ultimately won out in the end.
The 26-year-old Wong is a much better receiver and blocker than Alfaro who is at Triple-A Worcester after playing in 82 games for the 2022 Padres and making their National League Championship Series roster vs. the Phillies.
Both Wong and Alfaro boast strong arms but Wong is becoming one of the big league’s top throwing catchers early in the season. He has thrown out 6-of-14 (43%) base stealers.
He’s also batting .284 with a .342 on-base percentage, .507 slugging percentage, .850 OPS, three homers, six doubles, 12 runs and 10 RBIs in 24 games (74 plate appearances).
Did the Red Sox acquire a starting catcher in the Mookie Betts trade?
The Red Sox received Wong, Alex Verdugo and Jeter Downs from the Dodgers for Betts and David Price on Feb. 10, 2020. At the time, Wong was considered more likely to become a No. 2 catcher on a big league team. But there also was a time when many didn’t think Christian Vázquez would hit enough to be Boston’s No. 1 catcher. That obviously changed.
The trade return will look significantly better if Wong ends up being a starting catcher. Verdugo leads all Red Sox players in WAR (1.4), per Fangraphs.com. Wong is fifth (0.7 WAR), just behind Rafael Devers (0.9).
He entered Thursday tied for second in the major leagues in pop time to second base (1.88 seconds).
“You have the transfer. So if the transfer is not clean, you can’t throw the ball,” Wong said. “Then you have the footwork. If your footwork is not right, you’re more than likely going to make bad throws. And then obviously the throw itself. So I think it’s staying on top of the transfer, the footwork. Making sure all of the stuff is clean, giving you the ability to make good throws.”
Wong always has had a strong arm. He threw out 16-for-31 (52%) of base stealers for the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Double-A affiliate, Tulsa, in 2019.
But he said he has become much more consistent with transfers, footwork and on-target throws since the Red Sox acquired him. He’s second among MLB catchers in defensive runs saved (7). Only Milwaukee’s William Contreras has more (8).
“Making sure I’m taking care of that and not trying to get too crazy with it back there,” Wong said. “Pitchers are doing a good job of giving us chances to throw guys out. Making good throws right now.”
Red Sox game planning coordinator and catching coach Jason Varitek reminds Wong to focus on throwing with an over-the-top arm angle consistently.
“He does a really good job of reminding me to keep my fingers on top of the baseball,” Wong said. “As a former infielder, I can throw from a lot of different slots. So sometimes that can lead to arm-side misses at second base. But if I can keep my fingers on top of the baseball when I throw it, it’s going to be a little more true, a little more accurate.”
What else has Varitek stressed this season?
“Trying to be more vertical with my chest angle so I’m not trapping myself at the bottom,” Wong said. “I can cover a bigger range. I think those are the two biggest things we’ve talked about so far this year. But he’s really good and I’m sure he’ll have something for me at some point again this season.”
Wong also makes hard contact. He is 38th in the majors in average exit velocity (92.1 mph), per Baseball Savant. Devers is the only Red Sox hitter with a harder average exit velocity (92.9 mph).
Wong has the second hardest hit ball in play (113.6 mph) among Red Sox batters, behind only Devers (115 mph). He also has hit the longest home run (427 feet) of any Red Sox batter this season.
Wong’s 427-foot homer against the Guardians on Sunday was a towering blast. It had an insane 42-degree launch angle with a 111.8 mph exit velocity.
How is he able to generate such power despite being 45 pounds lighter than Devers?
“I don’t know the exact answer to that, to be honest,” Wong said. “I think if you get the barrel to the ball, these guys throw hard enough. You get solid wood on the ball, it should come off pretty hard. You get the barrel to it, it’s going to jump. It’s just a matter of where you get the barrel at in the swing. If it’s further out front, you’re a little bit stronger out there. So it’s kind of a combination, I guess.”
Manager Alex Cora said back in spring training 2021 that Wong has “eye-opening communication” with his pitchers and Varitek. Does he already feel like a leader?
“I don’t really view it like that,” Wong said. “I view it more like I want to take care of my guys. I want the best for them and for them to all have success. So I take pride in doing the homework, studying and all that. And just going out there and having fun. They’re all really talented. It’s easy to work with them. They’re great guys. So trying to help them be successful is my main goal.”