2022 Braves Player Review: William Contreras

A family thing

Despite the fact that he and his kid brother are the most illustrious catching family since the Molinas, big sib Willson Contreras didn’t start out behind the dish. The Cubs started him out in the infield, and only moved him behind the plate a few years into his pro career. I hope that whoever was responsible for that idea got a promotion for his trouble, as it netted the Cubs one of the best catchers in baseball.

Willson Contreras made the majors midway through his eighth year in pro ball, at the age of 24, and the position change may have contributed to the length of his development. Little bro William is just 24 as I write this — he turns 25 on Christmas Eve! — and he had a much straighter path to the majors.

The Braves signed William in 2015, the year before the Cubs called up Willson, and William played nothing but catcher in the Braves system. In 2018, Willson made his first All-Star team, and William got promoted to Single-A. He got his first cup of coffee in the abbreviated 2020 season. This year, both brothers made the All-Star Team. It’s really neat! It isn’t supposed to be this easy. It won’t always be.

Willson Contreras had an emotionally rocky year with the Cubs, as as he was pretty universally expected to be traded at the deadline, then found himself in the unexpected position of not going anywhere and staying with the team that ostensibly only kept him because no one else bowled them over with a trade offer. No fun, but this winter, he’ll get paid.

William, thankfully, knows exactly where he’ll be lacing up his cleats for the foreseeable future, even though he’s one of the team’s few young stars who hasn’t yet been extended by Alex Anthopoulos.

I’m not going to play devil’s advocate: we all know William’s good. But…

How good is he?

First, the negatives. His glove is not great, which is part of why the Braves didn’t hand him the job prior to now. He’s in the 20th percentile in framing, though he’s in the 51st percentile in his pop time to 2nd base. Overall, by Fangraphs’s defensive ratings, among the 40 MLB catchers with at least 500 defensive innings played, Travis d’Arnaud was fifth in baseball in defense; William Contreras was 30th, three spots worse than his brother Willson, whose defense has long been viewed as a shortcoming.

At the plate, William has got too much swing and miss in his bat. He’s in the 6th percentile in Whiff% and 13th percentile in K%. Those are weak elements in Michael Harris II’s game, too.

But Will has a couple of major advantages over Mike: first, his chase rate is slightly better than league average (54th percentile) and his walk rate is significantly better, 77th percentile. He’s got a hole in his swing, but he currently has a far better understanding of the zone. (He’s also three years older than Michael.)

The very solid walk rate is nice, but his power is much more impressive. He was in the 82nd percentile in xwOBA and the 90th percentile in expected slugging, and the 91st percentile in barrels. He hit .278 last year, but that was aided by a .344 BABIP; I’d guess he will not hit for a particularly high average in most years, but his secondary average will likely more than make up for it. The guy can rake.

What he needs to avoid

So, we’ve got a young hard-hitting catcher with reasonably weak defense. Should we make him a cornerstone of the team’s future, as we did with Javy Lopez? Or, if you’re like me, did you read that description and nervously ask yourself if he’ll turn into Gary Sanchez?

Sanchez is a sad story, really. His first two years were so far better than anything he’s managed since then that it’s a bit hard to remember how limitless his potential once seemed. Back in 2017, I took him as the 30th overall selection in the Hardball Times Franchise Player Draft, ahead of Clayton Kershaw and Anthony Rizzo (and just after Hunter Greene, Victor Robles, and Justin Verlander — prospects will break your heart). As I wrote then: “Sanchez is one of the best young power hitters in the game, along with Aaron Judge, the Ruth to his Gehrig.”

Anyway… Sanchez is still a good power hitter, but, basically, he cannot get on base enough (or hit it over the fence enough) to overcome his extreme inability to make contact with the baseball. His xSLG is 76th percentile, and his Barrel% is 92nd percentile, but his Whiff% is 14th percentile, his K% is 10th percentile, and his BB% is 53rd percentile. It’s a relatively fine line, but ultimately, while Contreras may be a slightly better power hitter, he is much better at getting on base, which is the biggest difference between a below-average player like Sanchez and an above-average player like Contreras.

What he needs to do next

He was an All-Star last year, but I don’t expect as smooth a ride in 2023. In order to repeat the results he posted last year, Contreras needs to improve in a few key areas, and not only defensively. Just like with Harris, there’s too much whiff in his game. He has taken meaningful steps to improve — he cut down on the proportion of pitches outside the zone he swung at, and as a result he improved his contact percentage slightly.

But it still remains markedly below league average, because he is much worse than most hitters at making contact on the pitches outside the zone: he makes contact with just 49.8% of pitches outside the zone, compared with a league average of 63.5% of pitches outside the zone. Overall, he made contact with 68.4% of pitches, compared with a league average of 76.6%.

That’s not good. It’s actually even worse than Sanchez, who for his career has made contact with 57.4% of pitches outside the zone, and 71.9% of pitches overall.

Up to now, William Contreras has seen a much higher proportion of pitches in the zone than most batters — 47.8% of pitches were in the zone in 2022, compared to a league average of 41.3%. But now that he’s had a highly successful All-Star season, the book will be out on him, and everyone will realize that he can’t hit it if you throw it outside the zone, so if you want to get Contreras out, don’t throw him a strike.

That’s why I expect he’ll have a much lower average this year, as pitchers learn to exploit that weakness in his game, though I think his power numbers and his on-base numbers will still play. His good walk rate gives cause for optimism that he can take pitches and continue to get on base once pitchers throw him fewer strikes. But this will be a season of transition, and we’ll learn a lot about him as we see how he adjusts.

If he’s able to take his sophomore struggles in stride, he’ll be a franchise cornerstone.

39 thoughts on “2022 Braves Player Review: William Contreras”

  1. If the Braves do go after Murphy, it will be as a starter. TdA would be the backup and spen a lot of time at DH. Contreras might generate a lot of value as an All Star trade chip especially if the Braves are more concerned about the shortcomings mentioned in Alex’s article. Is there a solid LF that Contreras could be traded for? Or SP? Or even SS? All of that could be part of the calculus in looking at Murphy. Plus if we can get rid of Ozuna, things might start to come together. A lot of this could be post-Dansby planning. Maybe Contreras could be part of an Adames trade.

    If the Braves do get Murphy then I’m sure Pina will be traded too.

  2. To be frank, I really don’t see the case for Murphy. If the Braves were that concerned about catcher defense, they wouldn’t have kept Contreras while trading away Langeliers. We’ve got a good catcher who’s younger than Murphy, is team-controlled for longer than Murphy, and is a better hitter than Murphy. Why trade valuable prospects for a guy who plays a position that we already have an adequate solution for?

    In the minor leagues, a lot of people said they thought William would be a better hitter than his brother. I think we’ve already seen evidence that he very likely is. His defense isn’t great, but neither is Willson’s. The Braves apparently feel that he has already made improvements to go from unplayably bad behind the dish to where he is now, which is bad but capable of playing significant innings. As long as he has good makeup and is willing to keep working on it, he can probably continue to improve slightly.

    Contreras (probably) isn’t ever going to get a $100 million contract. He’s not Michael Harris II; he’s not a five-tool player, he’s (likely) not a future superstar. But he’s a 24-year old who has hit 28 home runs in 571 major league plate appearances while playing catcher. That’s 10th place on the all-time Atlanta Braves list for catcher home runs, one behind Eddie Perez and three behind Kurt Suzuki! Next year, he’ll probably pass Evan Gattis (5th place with 43) and there’s a decent chance he could pass Ozzie Virgil (4th place, 51). The only guys ahead of Ozzie are Javy Lopez, Brian McCann, and Joe Torre. In other words: it is really, really hard to find a guy this good to play catcher, and keep him there.

    Again, all of this could be a very different story if he falls flat next year. If there’s one thing we know, it’s that catchers have tough career paths. They take a beating, they get hurt, and all those dings day in and day out really add up. But I’d bet on his talent. The dude can really hit, and that’s very hard to find in a backstop. I really think we should just keep the bird in the hand.

  3. I get why the Rangers did it; but damn there’s a ton of risk in that deal. Glad to have him away from the NL East, though.

  4. Pitcher contracts are getting crazy. Verlander supposedly wants 3/$130MM.

    Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz wish they’d pitched in the 2020s.

  5. USC goes down. Possibly the worst tackling display I’ve ever seen. OSU will make the playoffs after all.

  6. Yup, deGrom in the AL West… fine. That contract is a bit much. (And no state income tax in Texas.)

    I would’ve liked to have seen USC try to tackle Darnell Washington… oh well.

  7. With the Wong trade and the announcement that Adames would not be traded, I wonder if the Braves were involved in Wong talks (Wong for 2B and Ozzie for SS). Then pivot for Murphy after including Contreras in a Wong trade.

    I’m not arguing that Contreras should be traded but only that he is a good trade piece to dangle. It won’t be long before TdA is a backup. I’m not sure Winker wasn’t potential target too, so the Braves may be out multiple options with the Wong trade.

    The USC loss seems like a pretty big surprise, but OSU is deserving of the slot. If Alabama winds up 5th, that one point loss to LSU will end up being the biggest loss of the last few years. I’m sure UGA would have beaten Bama in the SEC Championship anyway which would lead right back to 5th and OSU being in.

  8. Murphy only makes sense to me as part of a series of moves that substantially alters the roster, not in isolation. And trading Contreras seems dumb unless you are absolutely certain that 2022 is as good as it’s going to get for him and you want to maximize his value before it craters. (And even if you do believe that, it seems like you could do better for him than a medium middle infielder who’s not that far from free agency.)

    (I feel 100% confident that whoever plays shortstop for the Braves in 2023, it will not be Ozzie Albies.)

  9. #11
    Utah did beat USC earlier this season. Still, USC had a chance to get up big early last night. Up 17-3, they got a turnover in Utah territory & couldn’t cash in any points. Losing their QB didn’t help either.

    Go Dogs.

  10. I talked about it when I wrote up D’Arnaud, but it’s seemingly obvious what AA values out of the catching position: veterans. While I don’t expect it, I wouldn’t be shocked if AA dealt Contreras. If AA feels like Contreras is positionless, he’ll deal him. If he thinks he’s the catchers of the future, he’ll keep him.

  11. Contreras for Oneil Cruz?

    (This is the sort of crap a Georgia Tech fan writes while waiting for the Georgia game to end.)

  12. It is interesting how everyone talked about needing playoff expansion. Now that we have 4 teams, it seems like 2 would be better. There would no controversy this year if only Georgia and Michigan played

  13. I think TCU gets the nod over Bama based on the Texas games. TCU won by 7, Bama won by 1 playing against the 2nd team Texas quarterback for 3 quarters.

  14. I don’t think this week’s games will make much difference in the playoff standings.

    Kyle Gibson goes to Balto. With the Mets losing deGrom and Phillies losing Gibson, the Morton signing looks better and better. AA did such a great job of minimizing the FA risk.

    And note that Reynolds asking for a trade seems to make absolutely no difference based on what the Pirates said. Not sure what it would take to pry Reynolds from the Pirates. Surely more than we’d offer.

  15. How about Yelich? Would we want him? Would they trade him? Seems like we could certainly get rid of Ozuna that way. But Yelich may be huge dead money. The Brewers mentioned not trading Burnes, Woodruff, or Adames. But no mention of Yelich.

  16. @18 – If you want a wildly popular, highly exciting money-making bonanza, we are wrong. If you want to determine who the best team in the country is, we are correct.

  17. Could Zach Britton be the next AA one-year project reliever? Seems like he fits the Yates mold. And we could use a lefty in the absence of Matzek.

  18. Good for ole Crime Dog. With that said, committee inductees go in with a mental asterisk with me. They’re letting everybody in. A couple of my Little League buddies might be getting the call soon.

  19. After steroids complicated everything, kinda quit caring about the baseball Hall of Fame. Then they elected Harold Baines (to what has become the Hall of Very Good), and I really quit caring about it.

    That said, good for Fred McGriff… I always thought he should get in.

    Re: CFP
    And now UGA has the opportunity to pull the ultimate SEC flex: Beat Ohio St. & Michigan in the same post-season.

  20. Good for the Crime Dog. I’m very happy for him.

    I remember his first game in Atlanta vividly. I was in Kalamazoo, following along on Tigers radio. I remember the Braves going down early, and then hearing he’d hit a home-run to get us back in the game. I found out the result the next morning in the USA Today, delivered to the apartment we were staying at. Along with the fire at the stadium, it made for a very memorable debut and put a lasting memory in my 12 yr old self. Plus we wouldn’t have chased down the Giants that year without him.

  21. Reynolds would be quite the coup. I wonder how many pitching prospects we could give to make it happen. I’d include Henry-Malloy too (and Rosario to match the position and balance the money).

  22. I’m a Small Hall guy. I think there are very few surefire, unquestionably transcendent players who are Hall-of-Famers, maybe 5-7 per decade.

  23. I actually took a fresh look at Crime Dog’s career a month ago for some reason. I’m sorry, it’s simply just a very good career. There’s simply not a significant difference in McGriff and, say, Paul Konerko. In fact, he’s third in McGriff’s B-Ref similarity score. I don’t know how the hell these people are parsing all of these power-hitting first baseman who DH’ed and played the easiest position for a decade and a half so they could rack up a bunch of counting stats. Why is McGriff in and Carlos Delgado and Paul Konerko not? Why was Bagwell put in by the voters? OPS+, counting stats, black ink, they’re all very similar players.

  24. It’s pretty interesting how Feinsand went from “the Braves are the frontrunner from Murphy” to “the Braves are definitely not getting Murphy” in such a short span. I wonder where he got the original information.

  25. Small Hall guy here. Fred McGriff is not a HOFer. Of course, neither is Dale Murphy (who I personally idolized as a child) and neither is Andruw Jones for my money.

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