As Kevin Plawecki stepped to home plate Tuesday night for his first at-bat of the game, the Mets were hoping for something so simple from their young catcher: Patience. It had been on short supply for him lately. Plawecki has been a tempest at the plate, all quick-twitch and little discipline.
When he let Jameson Taillon's first pitch buzz by, it was a small victory for hitting coach Kevin Long. He had kept preaching discipline and received little of it in return. At least, Plawecki did not swing here.
To build himself back up, Plawecki will need many of these. He has had a poor start to his major league career -- taking a .576 OPS over 391 plate appearances into the game. This season has been especially difficult. When Travis d'Arnaud hit the disabled list once again in late April, Plawecki assumed the starting job. After his first home run of the year on May 9 in Los Angeles, he held a respectable .705 OPS. In 21 games since, he's amassed just 13 hits.
Long diagnoses the issues easily.
"A little too aggressive," he told me Tuesday at Citi Field. "It's almost like he's getting in there and he's anxious. Instead of slowing it down and maybe seeing a pitch and kind of getting into an at-bat he's just a little too aggressive right now. He knows it."
But ignorance of his problems hasn't been an issue for Plawecki -- execution has. Despite an emphasis on working deeper into counts, he's not following through. The swings and approach he practices in the cage before games aren't following him into games. And the advanced statistics Long used to show Plawecki to soothe his worries even as his baseball card numbers sagged are no longer of much help.
Plawecki owns the eighth-lowest average exit velocity of any hitter with at least 75 balls in play this year entering Tuesday, according to Baseball Savant, and the sixth-shortest average distance on his batted balls. His hard-hit rate and line drive percentage are both below league average for catchers. And although his walk rate has jumped up considerably this season, Plawecki is swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone.
If there is a positive, it's that he's shown himself to be a potent defensive catcher. He's 11th among all major league catchers in FRAA_ADJ -- a catch-all defensive metric produced by Baseball Prospectus that includes pitch framing.
That lull has come as the Mets' lineup has been decimated with injuries. Lucas Duda and David Wright also sit on the DL. Michael Conforto has slowed since April, with his chase rate jumping and his numbers falling dramatically. Though he's likely to come out of his slump at some point, it doesn't make the team's troubles any less painful now.
"They're young guys and they're trying to make their mark in the major leagues," Long said. "Sometimes it can snowball on them and it can go a little faster than it needs to."
It's no surprise, then, that frustration seems to have creeped in at times. When he struck out looking in the fifth inning, Plawecki simply stood at the plate, his shoulders shrugged and looked into the distance.
"You're young and you want to prove to everybody that you can do this," Long said. "He's got to just trust in his ability. It'll draw what he's capable of doing a lot more than trying to make it happen. I still believe it's in there. I still believe he can do it but the biggest part is he's going to slow the game down and trust what he's working on."
For the Mets, it presents an issue. With Plawecki and d'Arnaud in the fold, it seemed they had two young, productive catchers. But d'Arnaud has been a magnet for injuries and the disabled list and the Mets miss him in his absence. He's been a top-10 offensive catchers since the start of the 2014 season but the club's catchers own the third-worst OPS this season as he's played in just 13 games this year.
Plawecki, still just 25, has had his own woes. Although manager Terry Collins professes confidence in him, his struggles have made the Mets miss d'Arnaud even more.
"It's tough to be a part-time player when you've been an everyday player," Collins said. "We were in a situation for a while where he wasn't swinging and then he starting swinging pretty good and we're at a spot where guys are starting to run a little bit so we start Rivera a little bit more. Kevin had a nice road trip. He really did. He got a big hit in Miami. He got a big hit in Pittsburgh. He got a big hit in Milwaukee. He's swung the bat.
"I just think the one thing when you're in a situation where you're not necessarily playing everyday you're always looking over your shoulder when you're a young guy and you've got to get away from that and worry about taking care of business."