Rookie catcher William Contreras held down the Braves’ starting catcher role for more than two months when injuries decimated Atlanta’s catching depth a month into the season. Despite a strong start, his struggles led to a mid-season demotion to Triple-A, and the highly-regarded prospect’s long-term future with the Atlanta organization may be uncertain.
William Contreras was signed as a 17-year-old international free agent out of Venezuela on February 1, 2015. After progressing to Double-A in 2019, he made his Major League debut with the Braves in 2020, as the Braves got double-whammied by both Travis d’Arnaud and Tyler Flowers having to miss a little bit of time at the start of the shortened season.
William Contreras headed into the 2021 season with the opportunity to push for playing time at the big league level. After a cameo early in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign that saw him pick up four hits in 10 plate appearances, he spent the balance of the season at the Braves alternate site.
Rising through the minor league system, Contreras broke out in 2018 while playing between the Braves two A-level affiliates, putting together a combined .285/.347/.436 slash line. His raw power flashed more during the season, and his overall improvement as a 20-year-old pushed him into potential “catcher of the future” territory.
Prior to the 2019 season, Fangraphs rated Contreras as the 55th overall prospect in baseball, noting that he showed above-average tools defensively and offensively while benefiting from the tutelage of his older brother, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras. Rated with an above average (60 grade) arm, the big question for him was his ability to turn raw power into game power, and to get the bat to the ball enough where it could matter.
While his 2019 season didn’t see a step-forward offensively, he split the season between High-A and Double-A, gathering just north of 200 plate appearances at both stops. He posted similar slashes at both stops, combining for a .255/.315/.354 line.
Notably, it was during the season that the Braves used their first-round pick, ninth overall, on highly-touted collegiate catcher Shea Langeliers out of Baylor University. With Contreras and Langeliers only about five weeks apart in age, Contreras went from being the primary catching prospect in the Braves system to one of two high-level catching prospects whose timeline and path to the majors were likely to overlap.
In their 2020 prospect ratings, Fangraphs still thought highly of Contreras giving him a future value (FV) rating of 50 (i.e., average regular) and noting that the Braves were aggressively pushing him and focusing on his development as a catcher. In the same publication, they gave Langeliers an FV of 45, although the latter’s ratings were almost identical to those for the former.
Prior to the 2020 regular season, Talking Chop offered a deep dive into Contreras’s stats coming to the season, which provided an extensive break-down of his development to that point. Coming into this past season, Talking Chop rated Contreras ahead of Langeliers, fourth overall, noting the similarities of the Contreras and Langeliers with while figuring a higher offensive ceiling for Contreras and and Langeliers’ defensive aptitude.
Coming into 2021, Alex Jackson was positioned to be d’Arnaud’s backup, while Contreras looked to be in for a season at Triple-A to continue his development while serving as the primary fallback option should injuries or performance provide an opportunity in Atlanta.
2021 Season Results
As expected, it was Jackson and d’Arnaud that started the season as the catching tandem for Atlanta. However, after a one-game cup of coffee in April, Contreras was recalled from Gwinnett, along with long-term veteran back-stop Jeff Mathis, on May 2, when a hamstring injury landed Jackson on the 10-day IL and d’Arnaud broke a bone in his wrist, landing him on the 60-day IL. (Yes, both IL placements were on the same day.)
Those moves pushed Contreras into the starting role. Through the month of May, he performed well, ending the month with a strong OPS of .841 with five home runs. This wasn’t a small-sample mirage, either, as Contreras posted a dandy .362 xwOBA across 78 PAs in May. You couldn’t have asked for much more offensively from a third-string catcher.
But after back-to-back three-hit games against the Phillies on June 8th and 9th, Contreras slumped, ending June with an OPS of only .580 (51 wRC+, .267 xwOBA). Contreras also endured challenges defensively, but the Braves continued to give him opportunities, as Jackson was back on the IL with a hamstring issue, while newly-acquired Kevan Smith was dreadful all-around as a Brave.
After three straight o-fers to open July, the Braves optioned Contreras to Triple-A on July 7, opting to go with a veteran catching tandem of Jonathan Lucroy and trade acquisition Stephen Vogt as they awaited d’Arnaud’s return from Injury.
Despite an entire lack of offense from Smith and Vogt, and Lucroy only appearing in a couple of games before being designated for assignment, it wasn’t until Vogt suffered a hip injury on September 10 that Contreras was permanently recalled to Atlanta from the minors despite hitting well (133 wRC+) at Gwinnett.
Contreras only saw regular duty in the lineup after the Braves clinched the division as the Braves rode d’Arnaud hard down the stretch, valuing the veteran’s ability defensively and with the pitching staff over that of the rookie backstop.
For the season, Contreras slashed .215/.303/.399 (86 wRC+, underhitting his league-average xwOBA by .016) for Atlanta while putting up a strong line of .290/.357/.516 for Gwinnett. Due to some serious defensive issues, Contreras managed 0.0 fWAR on the season; his WARP was 0.2.
What went right? / What went wrong?
Appearing in 52 regular season games – and putting up 185 plate appearances – for Atlanta in 2021 meant the end of Contreras’s rookie status. As previously noted, the injuries that decimated the Braves catching depth forced Contreras into two months of being the primary starter, despite having only a half a season’s experience at the Double-A level.
What went right was the first month of the regular season. During that time, he performed well offensively, with the above-mentioned output that, if had been sustained, could have made the defensive issues he struggled with more tolerable. For the season, he showed an excellent max exit velocity, in the 92nd percentile according to Baseball Savant, and popped eight homeruns. Additionally, his hard-hit rate was nearly 10 points better than league average, at 45%, with an average-y batted ball profiles that featured too many grounders. He struggled with breaking pitches, especially curves, with a whiff rate of over 50 percent on curves, sliders, and even cutters in 2021 – leading to a below average 29 percent strikeout rate for the season.
Although the sample size was small, Contreras’ offensive numbers were dramatically better on the road versus those at home. In 96 plate appearances at home, he toiled with a line of .153/.250/.304 despite hitting half of his home runs at Truist Park. On the road, in 89 plate appearances, he hit a much more robust .282/.360/.500. This was partly because he underhit his xwOBA by a ton at home and outhit it on the road, but the xwOBA gap was still sizable (.349 on the road, .290 at home). This split flipped after the calendar turned to June, though, so it’s not anything systematic.
Despite a reputation as a solid defender, for the year, Baseball Savant had him in the 13th percentile for pitch framing, which was dreadful. Although he did throw out 37 percent of the runners who attempted to steal (13 percent better than league average), he allowed seven passed balls and was pretty awful by every defensive metric:
- Five runs below average framing-wise in about a third of a season by the Steamer/Jared Cross method;
- Three below average framing-wise by DRS, with another few runs thrown in for throwing, blocking, and other issues; and
- An aggregate four runs below average per Baseball Prospectus, most of that coming from poor framing.
All total, the season was mediocre for Contreras with a bWAR and fWAR of 0.0 along with that 0.2 WARP. (bWAR doesn’t include framing; he’d be in the negatives if it did.) But, given the state of the Braves catchers, his overall offensive numbers were better than any of the six other catchers that appeared for the team in 2021 (aside from nine PAs of Jonathan Lucroy), with the highest xwOBA among all of them as well. Of the four catchers who appeared in more than 25 games, Contreras’s OPS+ of 82 outflanked d’Arnaud’s 74 and was notably better than the horrific output Smith (20) and Vogt (28) put up for Atlanta.
Road to the Title
Although Contreras was the back-up catcher for all three post-season series, he only received one plate appearance as Brian Snitker played the veteran d’Arnaud behind the plate for every inning of the championship run.
Contreras’ lone appearance was a high-leverage one, however.
In Game 4 of the best-of-five NLDS, he pitch-hit for Luke Jackson in the bottom of the seventh with two outs and Adam Duvall at second base. With the score tied at 4-4, he grounded out against Brewers’ reliever Brandon Woodruff. (One inning later, Freddie Freeman would hit the dramatic home run against Brewers’ closer Josh Hader that gave the Braves the lead and led to the series win.)
That meant that defense aside, Contreras finished with negative WPA and cWPA in both the regular and postseason. Still, his season wasn’t without its thrills. Postseason or not, his crowning moment came on June 8 against the Phillies, as he popped Aaron Nola to extend a one-run lead to two in the fourth, singled in the sixth, and had a go-ahead single in the eighth, on a 3-0 pitch, that put the Braves on top for good. The game featured as many half-innings with runs as half-innings without them, and Contreras was a huge contributor to the victory.
As a 23-year-old catcher who entered the season slated for development in Triple-A, the 2021 season in Atlanta underscored the need for Contreras’ continued refinement. Prior to the lockout, the Braves signed free agent catcher Manny Pina. That move, combined with the late-season signing of d’Arnaud to a contract extension and an impressive offensive season put up by Langeliers at Double-A has called into question whether or not Contreras is still in the Braves’ long-term plans.
For the 2022 season, Steamer sees Contreras only appearing in six games, albeit with a positive contribution of 0.1 WAR in 24 PAs and a 100 wRC+. That suggests a league-average hitting catcher with slightly above-average defensive value (not for a catcher, in general), leading to an average-type player. That’s a pretty good asset to have.
While it is possible the Braves’ two catching prospects could share time behind the plate at Triple-A next season, or that injuries could necessitate a return to the majors in a Braves uniform; it is plausible that Braves could try to leverage the power Contreras showed in winning this winter’s Venezuelan league Home Run Derby by trying Contreras at other defensive positions.
Although the lockout has put a halt on any MLB transitions, there’s also the possibility that the Braves would use their catching depth in a trade after it ends – either as part of a package to bring back major league pieces as the Braves look to repeat as World Series Champions in 2022, or as a much less common prospect-for-prospect swap
As unsettled of a winter as it is for baseball as a whole, things are even more uncertain for Contreras. Still, the question seems to be more “where” the young backstop will continue his big league career than “if” he will, which is a decent place to be.