Here’s the latest chapter in my offseason series explaining my reasons for cautious optimism over the 2024 Cardinals. I am convinced of this: this team is better, perhaps much better, than how they’re viewed locally. It’s just a matter of maximization. Converting the positive potential into positive results.

If I’m wrong about this, here’s what it means: from ownership to the players, the Cardinals failed to do their jobs.

To this point I’ve hit on nine different angles that convey my reasonable amount of enthusiasm.

If you’d like to catch up — or just browse — here are the links:

Reason No. 1: Reinforced rotation 

Reason No. 2: It’s Fundamental 

Reason No. 3: Arenado and Goldschmidt

Reason No. 4: Enhanced Clubhouse Culture

Reason No. 5: Recent MLB Trends 

Reason No. 6: Maturing Homegrown Players

Reason No. 7: Addition By Subtraction

Reason No. 8: Marmol Will Be Better

Reason No. 9: Hungry Hearts 

And now …

Reason No. 10
Willson Contreras
Adversity Strengthened Him
Expect More In 2024

It was sad, how poorly Contreras was treated early on in 2023. Failing pitchers wanted to dodge accountability and needed a convenient scapegoat. Rather than take responsibility for their terrible performances, the hurlers went crying to manager Oli Marmol. And Oli made it worse by overreacting and removing Contreras as the starting catcher. Fans raised hell. The national media jumped on the story and the attention embarrassed the Cardinals. The team quickly backed off and reinstalled Contreras behind the plate.

Contreras — mentally and emotionally strong — rebounded in a way that made him more popular and admired. Cardinals fans were 100 percent behind him. His  passion for the game was exemplary. His attitude stood out. He became a source of joy in a repulsive 91-loss, last-place season.

Yes, Contreras needs to improve his pitch-selection process. He has to be more in sync with the pitchers in terms of understanding what they like to throw, and what works best for them — but that’s on pitchers, too. But coming into 2024, Contreras has a full book on the guys he worked with last season. He’s already connected with the new St. Louis pitchers and is building a relationship. For their part, the pitchers have come to appreciate Contreras and want to be better teammates for him. Miles Mikolas deserves special praise for speaking out on this and expressing his strong support for his catcher. New starters Lance Lynn, Sonny Gray and Kyle Gibson already have made it clear: they’re enthusiastic about working with Contreras. The pitcher-catcher vibes have been transformed.

As Lynn told reporters at the Winter Warm-Up: “Talking to him, getting to know him, he’s got a passion of the game. He’s got a passion for winning. He’s a great teammate and a great person. So that’s what it’s all about.”

Contreras reveres Cardinals icon Yadier Molina and wanted the honor of being the catcher to succeed the retiring Molina. And Molina believes in Contreras. Last offseason, when management asked Molina for guidance in finding his successor, Yadi recommended Contreras. Unconditionally. And Molina will be around the Cardinals in 2024 — as a consultant and unofficial coach — which will only help Contreras as Contreras strives to improve defensively. Having Molina in his corner is a big deal for Contreras. Molina will be a valuable resource. If a catcher — any catcher — wants to find ways to improve, it’s impossible to do better than go to Molina.

With new rules in place to open up the running game and increase MLB stolen-base totals, Contreras had a throw-out rate of 25 percent. That was above the league’s overall caught-stealing rate of 18 percent. Overall, per dWAR, Contreras was rated slightly above league average in his defense last season. Other metrics – including Fielding Run Value – had Contreras at a below-average level. But that said, his minus 3 Fielding Run Value in 2023 was better than that of Andrew Knizner (minus 5.)

Contreras’ pitch–framing still needs work. His pitch–blocking has improved. Much was made over the Cardinals’ bloated ERA when Contreras caught games, but a lot of that is junk. If Contreras was so awful, then why did Jordan Monntgomery have a 2.74 ERA last season when pitching to Contreras? The problems were more about a glaringly weak pitching staff than the catcher position.

Coveting his robust offense, the Cardinals signed Contreras to a five-year, $87.5 million deal on Dec. 9, 2022. And in his first season Contreras did his part to give the Cardinals more heft offensively. After being disrupted by the early and ugly scapegoating episode, Contreras turned in an impressive offensive performance.

A look at the numbers:

Contreras had a bad offensive showing in May, but this is what he did in the other five months of the season: .297 average, .391 onbase percentage, .517 slug, .908 OPS and a wRC+ that made him 49 percent above league average offensively.

Over his final four months of the season Contreras batted .305 with a .404 onbase percentage, .559 slug, .964 OPS and had the seventh-best wRC+ among  MLB hitters. After clearing May from his mind, Contreras performed 63 percent above the league average offensively for the remainder of the season.

The lava-hot flow of his hitting began at the start of July. From that point until the end of the regular season, Contreras batted .339, posted a phenomenal .440 onbase percentage, slugged .619, put up a 1.059 OPS, and performed 88 percent above league average offensively.

How good was that? Over the final three months, among hitters that logged at least 200 plate appearances, Contreras ranked first in wRC+, second in OBP and OPS, third in slugging percentage, and fifth in batting average.

Over the final three months, only Mookie Betts had a higher onbase percentage than Contreras. And only Matt Olson had a higher OPS than Contreras. The only two slugging percentages that topped Contreras were generated by Olson and Corey Seager. And the only hitters with a higher batting average than Contreras were Betts, Yandy Diaz, Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr.

Contreras was outstanding when batting with runners in scoring position last season, cranking out a team-best .314 batting average and a .987 OPS that was exceeded only by Brendan Donovan. Using wRC+, Contreras was 69 percent above league average with runners in scoring position. And with two outs and runners in scoring position, his wRC+ was a remarkable 85 percent above league average.

All of this goodness came after a harrowing beginning to his St. Louis career. Contreras had the strength of character to persevere and overcome. With so many Cardinals drooping and demoralized by the 91 losses, Contreras distinguished himself by getting better and better and better. I don’t know about you, but it makes me look forward to seeing what he can do in 2024.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.

Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb

All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Baseball Prospectus, Sports Info Solutions and Cot’s Contracts unless otherwise noted.

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

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.