Willson Contreras May Be the Stylistic Opposite of Yadier Molina, but He Makes the Cardinals Much, Much Better by Michael Baumann December 7, 2022 © Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports Maybe catching isn’t as demanding and difficult a profession as lumberjacking or deep sea fishing, but it’s hard, man. There aren’t many people out there who can live up to the position’s enormous physical and intellectual demands, fewer still can do all that and hit at a level that registers as more than “automatic out” to opposing pitchers. Even in the latter reaches of this year’s postseason, guys like Austin Hedges, Yadier Molina, and Martín Maldonado kept getting starts because they were a safe pair of hands behind the plate, even as the outs piled up at a rate that would’ve been unacceptable at any other position. Surefire two-way stars like J.T. Realmuto, Will Smith, and Adley Rutschman are rarer than at any other position, and the ranks of first-division starters swell and wane as a Jose Trevino suddenly learns how to hit, or an Austin Nola’s throwing becomes problematic. So when a catcher comes along who can hit — like, really hit — that’s a rare thing. Even if the defense isn’t ideal, a catcher with a dangerous bat is worth, well, let’s ask the St. Louis Cardinals. Turns out they think it’s worth the five years and $87.5 million they just gave Willson Contreras. Both Ben Clemens and our crowdsourced predictions had our no. 10 free agent on a four-year deal; Ben said $20 million a year, while the crowd predicted the same $17.5 million AAV Contreras ended up with. Even factoring in the penalties for signing a free agent who received a qualifying offer (forfeiture of $500,000 in international pool money and the Cardinals’ second-highest draft pick), this contract looks reasonable for St. Louis based on the Realmuto deal from two offseasons ago, as well as what’s been quite a rich market so far in free agency. Since Contreras broke in with the World Series-bound Cubs in 2016, he’s fourth among catchers in WAR and first in wRC+ among catchers with at least 1,500 plate appearances. More recently, since 2020, here’s how he stacks up in various offensive categories among catchers with at least 500 PA: Willson Contreras Since 2020 AVG OBP SLG wRC+ HR HardHit% maxEV WAR Value .241 .346 .444 119 50 47.9 116.2 7.2 Rank 17th 6th 10th 6th T-3rd 2nd 3rd 4th And even though he turned 30 this past season, Contreras’ bat looks as sprightly as ever. He just posted a career low in K% and career highs in wRC+ and xwOBA. The guys around Contreras on most of these leaderboards are among the best catchers in baseball, and represent a type of player who’s extraordinarily difficult to acquire. A young, cost-controlled backstop with two-way impact, like Sean Murphy, would demand a king’s ransom in trade. And to be honest, at 28 and with three years left of team control, both the “young” and “cost-controlled” points are open to debate. But at least he can be had in a trade, which is more than can be said for Smith, Rutschman, or Alejandro Kirk. Realmuto cost $115.5 million over five years, and that’s two seasons and a couple rounds of salary inflation ago. You’ll notice I’ve been talking up Contreras’ bat, and that’s because the glove, while playable, isn’t really a selling point. His arm is good — R.J. Anderson of CBS dug up a fun nugget Wednesday morning: In 2022, Contreras attempted more back picks than the second- and third-place catchers put together. He’s equaled or beaten the league average in caught stealing percentage in six of his seven big league seasons. The rest, however, not so much. Last season, 40 catchers caught at least 500 innings; of those, Contreras was the 28th-best framer and 27th-best defender overall. And if anything, that probably overstates Contreras’ defensive reputation. The Cubs have been sprinkling him around the field — DH, the outfield corners, the odd stint at third — since he was called up into a crowded catching situation in 2016. In 2022, he made 72 starts at catcher and 39 at DH. In this respect, he stands in stark contrast to the man he replaces: The latter-day Yadi. And no, Contreras likely won’t be as defense-y and leadershippy as Molina has been, but who is? Last year, Molina hit .214/.233/.302 and got 270 plate appearances anyway; he must have been quite leadershippy indeed. But while Cardinals observers will find the aesthetic transition from Molina to Contreras quite bracing, there are a few points to recommend the former Cub over the franchise legend he’s replacing. First, to steal an extremely old Jeff Passan line: Contreras can hit Molina farther than Molina can hit a baseball. And that matters — the Cardinals finished 27th in baseball last year in WAR among catchers. They haven’t finished higher than 18th since 2016, and haven’t finished higher than the Cubs since 2018, which is the only year of Contreras’ career when St. Louis has gotten more value from its catchers than its biggest rival. Second, the ranking incumbent Cardinal catcher, Andrew Knizner, has even worse defensive numbers than Contreras. They needed to upgrade somehow, and were at least tenuously linked to the much more Molina-like Christian Vázquez, as well as a trade for Murphy. They chose the largest stylistic departure available. Third, Contreras’ bat and relative youth actually make him a safer long-term bet than a catcher who gets by more with his glove. Because of the physical demands of the position, most catchers end up walking like Ebenezer Scrooge by the time they’re 35. Mix in the offensive decline typical of all position players at that age and you get, well, the last four or five years of Molina’s career: intangibles, and not a lot else. Contreras is the rare catcher who can transition to a part-time role elsewhere on the field and hit well enough to justify an average salary of $17.5 million. In that respect, it’s a shame we won’t get to live in the timeline in which Contreras plays for the Astros. His bat would’ve made a powerful complement to Maldonado’s defense, and with the Crawford Boxes so close to the right-handed batter’s box, Contreras could’ve hit 30-plus homers a year there. Houston had a trade lined up at the deadline, before Dusty Baker objected on the grounds that Contreras might hesitate to accept just such a part-time role as I’ve described partway through the season. Once free agency opened up, the Astros renewed their pursuit of the top catcher on the market, but ultimately seem to have fallen short. Finally, technological developments might work in Contreras’ favor. On Tuesday, commissioner Rob Manfred addressed the BBWAA at the Winter Meetings; when asked about the development of automated ball and strike technology — i.e. robot umps — he said the league was learning quite a bit, but also coming to understand how far there is to go before such tech is viable at the big league level. So while it’s unlikely that we’ll have ABS as soon as 2024, there’s a distinct possibility that we could have it before Contreras’ contract is up. Right now, catchers can win (or lose, in Contreras’ case) tens of runs per year by framing, which is the art of fooling flesh-and-blood umpires into thinking balls are strikes. If in the next few years we transition from meat-based umps to a system of sensors, that makes Contreras maybe as much as a full win better relative to his more defense-focused contemporaries. All of this is conjecture, but it’s something to consider when judging catchers out into the middle of this decade. All of which is a long way of saying: The Cardinals had a giant hole at catcher, and they filled it with the best option on the free agent market by far. In so doing, they made their lineup much deeper — thus shoring up a key weakness for a potential playoff push — and managed to tweak the Cubs by stealing their arch rival’s best player. That’s a pretty good day’s work.