No one is required to like Willson Contreras or accept the popular view that the Cardinals made a helluva smart move by signing the free-agent catcher to a five-year, $87.5 million contract. I just wish dissenters would be more fact-based in their objections on the facts.
A few quickie examples:
* Contreras was absolutely awful at framing pitches earlier in his career. Just turrible. One of the worst catchers in the majors at finessing called strikes on borderline pitches. But over the last three years, he had one above-average framing season and two exact-average framing seasons. So with the offense and power that Contreras provides as one of the top-hitting catchers in the majors, what’s the reason for all of this fussing over his average-quality pitch framing?
* Over the last two years Contreras has an above-average pop time in throwing out attempted base stealers, be it second or third base. His caught-stealing rate is above the MLB average. That was true last year and also applies to his career body of work. The Cubs as a team have allowed too many stolen bases since Contreras took over as the No. 1 catcher in 2017, but more than half of the total steals came against the Contreras backups. That’s notable because Contreras has caught more innings than the others. He hasn’t suppressed SB attempts as well as Yadier Molina … but no one does. However: in terms of limiting the frequency of stolen-base attempts – based on the number of opportunities to steal, even if the runner doesn’t take off – Contreras ranked No. 1 among catchers last season, 12th in 2021, and 7th in 2019. (I didn’t include the shortened 2020 season.)
* Contreras has an aggressive approach to catching. No one attacks baserunners as frequently as he does by throwing behind runners in an attempt to pick them off. As R.J. Anderson (CBS Sports) noted, Contreras “backpicked” runners 48 times last season – more than the second- and third-place finishers combined. And that total of 48 stands out because Contreras was limited to 72 starts because of an ankle injury that sidelined him for more than three weeks. His daring style works to keep runners close – and that becomes more important in 2023, when MLB installs bases with larger surface areas to make it easier to steal.
* I’ve received some emails on this next thing, so it’s probably a good idea to address it. The premise: Contreras may be a good hitter compared to other catchers, but the Cardinals need a No. 5 hitter, and Contreras isn’t that.
— When batting fifth in his career (2016-2022), Contreras has a .273 average, .381 OBP, .489 slug, an .871 OPS, and is 32 percent above league average offensively per wRC+.
— From 2016 through 2022, all No. 5 hitters in the majors collectively hit .252 with a .321 OBP, .433 slug, .754 OPS and were two percent above league average offensively per wRC+.
— To sum it up with a short-cut: compared to the industry standard for No. 5 hitters, Contreras has a batting average that’s 19 points higher, an OBP that’s 60 points higher, a slug percentage that’s 56 points higher, and an OPS that’s 117 points higher than. And in park-and-league adjusted runs created – good ol’ wRC+ – Contreras has been 30 PERCENT better than the typical No. 5 batter.
— Among MLB hitters that have at least 725 plate appearances in the No. 5 spot since the start of the 2016 season, Contreras ranks first in onbase percentage, third in wRC+ (32% above average), fifth in slugging and ninth in batting average. Hmm. I’m pretty sure Contreras can bat fifth in Oli Marmol’s lineup.
CONTRERAS AND PITCHERS
It’s interesting to read or hear some of the reasons why at least folks aren’t thrilled with the Contreras signing. The one that keeps popping up – and I was challenged on it the other day – is the whispering campaign that is supposed to make us believe that Contreras doesn’t prepare hard enough as a catcher, doesn’t call a good game as a catcher, hasn’t improved as a catcher, and pitchers aren’t thrilled to work with him. I don’t know what the point of origin is for this gossip, but I did some research to find the words of pitchers who worked with Contreras.
– Kyle Hendricks, at a time when it appeared that Contreras would be traded before the deadline last summer, which he wasn’t: “What he’s done for myself, I can’t even put words to it,” Hendricks said. “How well we know each other now, there’s like this unspoken language. We can just look at each other now. So it’s just something so special I’ve never had with any other catcher in my career. He’s definitely one of my favorite teammates ever.”
— More Hendricks on Contreras: “That’s just a personal, human kind of thing. We can communicate with an unspoken language and we have that connection. I care about him so much. And just to see where his next chapter is going to be, he’s going to be in this game for a long time. So, yeah, of course, you get emotional thinking about it in that way. But your focus has always been on the future. That’s kind of how we’re wired as baseball players.”
— Jon Lester was effusive in his praise of Contreras late in the 2020 season. David Ross had been Lester’s personal catcher in 2016, and retired after the Cubs won the World Series. (With Contreras starting five of the seven games against Cleveland.) Contreras took over as Lester’s personal catcher in 2017, and it stayed that way through 2020, Lester’s final year in Chicago.
“He’s meant a lot,” Lester told a Chicago-area reporter in 2020. “We’ve grown together, you know? I’ve turned into a newer version of me. Or, I guess, an older, newer version of me. We’ve had to adapt. We’ve had to learn on the fly. And he’s meant a lot to me at this point in my career, just the feedback and the confidence and the kick in the butt that he does sometimes. He’s just done a really good job, not only with me, but our whole staff.”
Lester appreciated the way the young Contreras convinced him to reduce the number of fastballs he’d been throwing to make more frequent use of the slider. And that change benefited Lester.
“Man, Willy’s grown up a lot,” Lester said. “I think people forget he just started catching. When I say just started catching, in the grand scheme of things… You know, Rossy caught for pretty much his whole life, so he’s been back there a long time. (Jason) Varitek, those guys (in Boston), they caught for a long, long time. Willy was an infielder up until not too long ago. I couldn’t give you the exact year, but he converted to a position he’s never played. And then he skyrockets to the big leagues and you expect him to catch games in the World Series, expect him to catch games in a postseason chase, a pennant chase, a division chase, and expect him to learn in those situations. That’s hard to do.
“I think this year (2020) we saw a little bit of a different Willy. A little more confident back there. I know guys have been on him about his pitch framing and pitch stealing, all the new metrics stuff behind the plate. I think the (pandemic) quarantine did him some good. He really kind of focused on that catching side and the one thing I’ve seen over the last, I guess it’s year, year and a half, is separating his at-bats from coming behind the dish. You see it all the time in the infield, the outfield. Guys take their at-bats out there and that’s one position that’s really important that you don’t do that with. And he’s done an unbelievable job of growing, learning.
“The new way he’s catching, I feel like the metrics are probably on his side a little bit more this year. I don’t know the numbers on that, but I would hope that they are.”
Lester was right. From 2020 through 2022, Contreras made substantial improvement in his pitch framing, based on the Statcast numbers. Why this improvement continues to be ignored by a whole bunch of people — well, I don’t understand it. But I’m perfectly fine to take Lester’s word on it, because Lester is the epitome of the term, “straight shooter.”
And when Cards president of baseball ops John Mozeliak recently reached out to Lester for a scouting report on Contreras, Lester was emphatic: SIGN HIM. Lester’s positive and unequivocal endorsement eased any concerns that the Cardinals might have had about Contreras’ leadership, work ethic and pitch-calling acumen.
Lester had one of his best seasons — 18-6 with a 3.32 ERA in 2018 – with Contreras as his catching mate. Lester received Cy Young votes in 2018. From 2017 through 2019, Lester had a 3.70 ERA when pitching to Contreras (484 innings) and a poorer ERA when working with other Cubs catchers.
— John Lackey approved of Contreras. Seemed to like him. And I don’t think the humorously grumpy Lackey likes many people.
“I think his game-calling and his understanding of situations has gotten a lot better as the season has gone along,” Lackey said late in the 2017 season. “A lot of stuff in the game that you gotta manage — in the game behind the plate. Having bunt coverages and that kinda stuff. He’s gotten good at being in charge of those things.”
— Marcus Stroman pitched to Contreras in 2022, their only season together. When pitching to Contreras, Stroman had a 2.79 ERA in 61.1 innings. When working with all other Cubs catchers, Stroman had a 4.07 ERA in 77.1 innings.
When asked in late July about the likelihood of Contreras leaving in a trade, Stroman had a lot to say.
“He’s been great,” Stroman told reporters that cover the Cubs. “I think he’s the cornerstone of this franchise, when you look at him kind of being the last guy left from the amazing things that they did in the past. It’s special. I think we’re all going to miss Willson … we’re super thankful for him. I think he’s going to be great (for his next team.) I think his career is just getting started. I think he’s going to be a perennial All-Star. It definitely sucks to lose a guy like Willson. A guy who comes in each and every day and competes to the absolute maximum. It’s hard to find that.”
— Here’s former Cubs Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta said about Contreras in 2021: “Willson has always been good. He’s always been really good. For me, I want to say that his ability to handle a pitching staff, and the game-calling … the in-game awareness … has definitely moved up a tick. There’s no question about it. Him and J.T. Realmuto are the two best (catchers) in the league.”
I think the Cardinals will somehow manage to survive, against all odds, with Contreras behind the plate. (Pardon my sarcasm.)
When Cubs president of baseball ops Jed Hoyer was asked about losing Contreras to the Cardinals, he said this: “I wish him happiness. He gave us a lot of happiness, and I wish him the same. There’s only 29 other teams people can sign with; this is going to happen from time to time. It doesn’t take away from what he did for the organization for a long time.”
Contreras is a winner. As a rookie he played in 17 games, making nine starts, during Chicago’s epic postseason run that culminated with the team’s first World Series title since 1908. He went on to compete in three other postseasons with Chicago and competed in 30 postseason games overall. He’s a three-time All-Star who believes he still has much to prove and accomplish. The Cardinals needed him. And he’ll be arriving at a good time. He really wanted to be a Cardinal. He reveres Molina. This is a meant-to-be relationship.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.