Connor Wong’s first impression as a member of the Red Sox organization was a memorable one.
Wong came to the Sox in February 2020 as the third player from the Dodgers in the Mookie Betts deal. Once the trade was consummated, he had to scramble to get to Fort Myers for spring training, arriving in advance of the possessions that had been shipped to Arizona but had to be rerouted to Florida.
“He gets here, he doesn’t have any equipment. First day of spring training, he’s there and he’s using someone else’s gloves, someone else’s gear, everything,” remembered Red Sox catching coach Jason Varitek. “Where he is now as opposed to then as a baseball player, as a human, is due to phenomenal work and a credit to a lot of people — mostly him.”
That time seems distant, with Wong assuming an increasingly important place on the Red Sox roster. The 26-year-old has emerged as the primary catcher, claiming the majority of starts in what had seemed like a timeshare with Reese McGuire at the beginning of the season.
Wong’s work behind the plate has been at the heart of his increased playing time. The Sox entered Saturday’s game against Cardinals 15-9 (.625) in games he started, at least partly a reflection, in the eyes of the Sox, of an excellent athlete who has made massive strides in the technical elements of catching, including blocking, receiving, and framing.
He’s thrown out 8 of 19 would-be base stealers, a 42 percent rate that ranks among the best in baseball. Most importantly, he’s earned the trust of the pitching staff with his game-calling.
Baseball-Reference.com credits Wong as having been worth 1.1 Defensive Wins Above Replacement level, a mark that makes him the most impactful defensive player this year. Other grading systems are more understated, but regardless, Wong has been a reliable defensive presence.
In that emergence, there is evidence of considerable progress. At the University of Houston and in the Dodgers system, Wong had bounced between catcher, second, and third, with teams employing his quick-twitch abilities to create versatility. But when the Sox traded for him, they had him commit full time to work behind the plate, a commitment that has solidified unformed skills.
“I’m an athletic catcher now, versus being an athlete back there,” said Wong. “I’ve come a long way. I’m able to handle pitches better. I feel stronger back there. I feel like I’m blocking better. I still want to get better at that. I feel like I’m more consistent throwing. But like I said, a lot of it is still a work in progress and I don’t think I’m a final product yet.”
Interestingly, a great deal of Wong’s development occurred at a time when he wasn’t able to play in games. Wong didn’t play a single official game in 2020 — when the minor league season was cancelled ecause of the COVID-19 pandemic — and participated in just 44 minor league contests in 2021.
Yet MLB’s COVID-19 protocols mandated that teams carry a third catcher on a taxi squad to help catch bullpens, and Wong was frequently chosen for that responsibility. The result was an immense amount of time around big league coaches and pitchers, as well as an opportunity to work exhaustively on the technical aspects of his craft — albeit outside of the game setting.
“I got to work with Tek a lot, which was really good for me. I think we really established a foundation in that time, and we’ve been building on that since,” said Wong. “I got to do a lot of catching and just solely focus on that in those times that I was on the taxi squad. I got to catch big league arms in the bullpen, sides, and all that stuff. It was a lot of time spent on catching and I think it was really beneficial.
“To be in the stadium and around the game at this level, being able to slow it down, it was huge from that vantage point. And then finally, when you get into games, it’s still quicker, but it’s much better than if you were to just go in cold turkey.”
Last year, Wong got to more regularly apply his knowledge in games, catching 54 games for Triple A Worcester and 20 more in the big leagues. That time in the big leagues set the stage for Wong to emerge as a key part this season.
Members of the Sox rave about Wong’s aptitude — his ability to hear something once and apply it, as well as his ability to engage in conversation (and sometimes push back) rather than nodding in response on subjects such as game-calling. The combination of aptitude and technical skill has Wong emerging as a trusted presence.
“You see his aptitude. It’s sensed and seen by his teammates,” said Varitek. “He’s excelling — absolutely. But I think he’s still growing as a baseball player. He’s still going to continue to grow,” said Varitek. “He has those intangible parts that not all players have — the game-calling, the game control, those things. The intangible parts that he has are just going to continue to grow and get better.”
That growth has turned Wong into a front-line catcher — a status that seemed in question as recently as last October, when the Sox expressed their openness to upgrading behind the plate. While they explored trades for Sean Murphy and William Contreras, they committed to Wong and McGuire. Through roughly one quarter of the season, they have no regrets.
For his part, Wong is resisting victory laps about the work he’s done. While he considers his current opportunity gratifying, he does not take it for granted.
“I am confident in my ability to catch, but I also know there’s still areas that I need to improve in. I’m working daily to get better,” said Wong. “I think I’m going to have that outlook for the rest of my career.”