By Axel Post
I’m not sure what the Brewers are cooking up (or brewing up) there in Milwaukee with the catchers, but whatever it is, it’s working, and it looks like they’ve done it again.
Let me take you on a journey, all the way back to the far distant year of 2019, before lockdowns, and just after the Astros’ cheating scandal. On December 9th, 2019, the Brewers traded Adam Hill and a 2020 supplemental second-round draft pick for Omar Narváez from the Seattle Mariners. Narváez was coming off two excellent years from a catcher with the bat, posting a 122 wRC+ in 2018 and a 120 wRC+ in 2019. Those numbers might lead you, my brilliant baseball reader, into asking why he was traded for a guy I’ve never heard of and a second-round pick. To put it simply, Narzáez was a catcher that couldn’t catch.
In 2018, while with the White Sox, Narváez put up a -12.6 Defensive Runs Prevented (DRP), making him the worst catcher in the league in that category, in just 85 games behind the plate. He was the 5th worst blocker and the 7th worst framer that season according to Baseball Prospectus. He followed that up in 2019 with another awful year, putting up a -12.1 DRP, he was the worst blocker in baseball and he only threw out 18% of base stealers. In each of these respective seasons, he had a -14 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), and then a -18 DRS. To put that in perspective, JT Realmuto had an 11 DRS last season, he won the gold glove.
Have I driven home the point yet?
The Brewers were trading for a bat-first catcher, nothing out of the ordinary, they know he can’t catch but they’ll live with the poor defense. Right? Wrong.
In the shortened 2020 season Omar Narváez was 5th in DRP with 3.6, and he tied for first as the best framing catcher in all of baseball, posting a DRS of 3 in just 39 games. Unfortunately, he hit .176 in the shortened season so the improvement defensively didn’t stick out as much as the horrible offensive showing.
Then we got 2021. Naváez’s bat didn’t quite return to the pre-pandemic numbers, why this is we can’t know for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he really benefitted from the juiced balls. However, he still ended up with a 100 wRC+, meaning he was an exactly league-average hitter. He also continued on his defensive improvement, with a 12.7 DRP, and according to Baseball Savant, he was the best framer in baseball with 10 catcher framing runs. He was still a well-below-average blocking catcher, but considering where he came from this was an immense improvement.
Despite not posting anywhere near the offensive seasons of his past, 2021 was his best season by fWAR with a 2.8 in 123 games, his previous best was 1.9 fWAR in 132 games in 2019. That’s almost a full win better in 9 fewer games while also not hitting as well.
Now, why in god’s name am I talking about Omar Narváez? Maybe you know where I am going with this. Let’s talk about William Contreras.
In William’s first 113 games behind the plate with the Braves, the defense was pretty ugly. In 2021 he posted a -7 DRS in just 49 games. In 2022 he had a -4 DRS in 60 games behind the plate, making 8 errors, and ranking in the 20th percentile in framing. He has a cannon for an arm, but posted a -3 caught stealing above average, one of the worst in baseball. He had a 2 Block Above Average (BAA), which was about the only thing he was at least average in as a catcher.
The Braves even put him in left field for a game, as well as having him serve as the DH for another 34 games. He was placed in the DH role because there is no doubt that William Contreras hammers baseballs. In 175 games he has put up a 121 wRC+ with 29 homers. Including having a 138 wRC+ last season, and making the all-star game.
Then this past off-season, stop me if you’ve heard this one. The Brewers traded for a bat-first catcher. William Contreras was being sent to the Milwaukee Brewers in part of the extremely convoluted three-team deal that sent Sean Murphy to the Braves.
It’s early, only 19 games caught for Contreras thus far, but it looks like the Brewers catching lab has struck again. He already has a 6 DRS, and he’s currently the 4th best blocker in baseball with a 5 BAA. He’s in the 63rd percentile for framing and has thrown out 2 of the 6 steal attempts against him.
It’s such a small sample size but I am buying what Contreras/Brewers are selling me. They have done it before with Narváez, and Contreras is only 25 years old with the tools to be that plus defensive catcher that he has displayed so far this season. The significance of these defensive improvements can not be understated, as even with the great season with the bat last season, he only put up a 2.4 fWAR. So far this season he has yet to get his power stroke going with the stick but has managed to put up a 118 wRC+ regardless, and in 22 games he has a 0.9 fWAR. The quick math on that is that he has put up 38% of his total fWAR from last season in 75 fewer games played. This is with the bat not being nearly as good as last year so far.
What you have to consider is that if everything clicks for Contreras, the Brewers have a top 10, maybe a top 5 catcher who is under team control through 2027. That is invaluable to a franchise.
The Brewers know something that we don’t about developing catchers, and they know it. If the Braves thought William Contreras was an above-average catcher they wouldn’t have given up a king’s ransom for Sean Murphy, and they definitely wouldn’t have started experimenting with him in the outfield. But the Brewers saw something, they targeted it, and got their man because they have been cooking up the secret catcher sauce in the lab for years now.
I am bought in on the Brewers catching lab, and you should be too.