From preseason questions about his future with the organization to an All-Star Game starting nod to his mid-December trade to Milwaukee, William “Will Bill” Contreras had a wild ride in 2022 - one befitting the “Wild Bill” nickname he gained from Braves fans early in last season’s campaign.
William Contreras was an international free agent signing by Atlanta in February 2015. He made his MLB debut on July 24, 2020.
What were the expectations?
As the lockout loomed over the sport last fall, Alex Anthopoulos moved in typical Alex Anthopoulos fashion and jumped the market by signing former Milwaukee Brewers’ catcher Manny Pina to a multi-year contract. This move came despite having both Contreras and former ninth overall draft choice Shea Langeliers in the organization, nearly MLB-ready.
There was speculation, throughout the lockout, about the future of both Contreras and Langeliers. The murkiness of Contreras’s future with Atlanta was cleared, somewhat, when Langeliers was included as part of the blockbuster trade that brought Matt Olson to Atlanta.
Although Contreras made Atlanta’s roster out of Spring Training, it was expected that he would spend most of the year at Triple-A despite signs of offensive promise with Atlanta during the 2021 season to work on improving his defensive and fine-tune his offense. Because of his offensive promise, there was speculation that the Braves might look to have him spent time learning to play the outfield to further his chances of helping Atlanta during the 2022 season.
Contreras didn’t have a lot left to prove, offensively, with Gwinnett, as his 2021 numbers at Triple-A ere outstanding. He slashed .290/.357/.516 for Gwinnett, good for a 133 wRC+ in 171 plate appearances despite striking out more than 21 percent of the time.
Overall, it was a little hard to know where exactly to pin down Contreras’ major league production. He was probably going to carry an above-average bat of some sort, but the defense was definitely a work in progress. The universal DH made value a bit more complicated as well — to the extent he was a fit for non-catcher starts at DH, his value would suffer from the DH penalty in a way it wouldn’t were he to start at catcher, but it gave him an avenue towards more playing time anyway.
2022 Season Results
In 51 plate appearances, Contreras provided only an 86 wRC+ … at AAA. Thankfully for him, and for Atlanta, he was much better for the big-league club than he was in 13 games for Gwinnett.
For the season, Contreras posted a line of .278/.354/.506, good for a wRC+ of 138 in 376 plate appearances as a catcher and designated hitter. There was also his appearance in left field, but that experience seemed to end quickly and resulted in multiple terrible defensive plays in the span of just one game.
The offensive potential Contreras was touted as having as a prospect began to show itself once Contreras became a regular part of the lineup. Splitting time with Travis d’Arnaud behind the plate and getting regular at-bats as the team’s designated hitter, Contreras provided the team with 35 extra-base hits, including 20 home runs for the season.
Contreras was able to maintain a walk-rate that was just above 10 percent while slightly decreasing his strike-out rate compared to 2021, although he still struck out 27.7-percent of the time.
As shown above, Contreras excelled at hitting the ball hard and squaring up the ball with a barrel percentage in the top 10 percent of all of MLB in 2022. Unfortunately, there was a lot of missing pitches, as seen by his abysmal Whiff% and K%.
Overall, Contreras put up 2.4 fWAR in those 376 PAs. His value was greatly bolstered by him outhitting his xwOBA (.370 wOBA, .347 xwOBA), and also depressed by subpar catcher defense, as well as incurring the DH penalty when he DHed.
What went right? / What went wrong?
When Bryce Harper was injured and unable to perform in the 2022 All-Star Game, it was Contreras who was the beneficiary, becoming an All-Star starter for the National League at DH. Adding to this honor was that he joined his brother Willson, who was selected as the starter at catcher, in the NL’s starting lineup.
Highlighting his use of all fields approach as a batter, his 2022 spray chart is remarkable. As shown below via Baseball Savant, his power-output is evenly distributed to all fields – and includes four hits that would have been home runs at Truist Park. That shows up with an underperformance with a -2 HR-xHR.
In 2022, Contreras crushed sinkers. His Run Value against the pitch was +8 last season across 299 pitches seen. It was also the pitch he whiffed on the least and the one that he posted his highest-rated slugging-against.
All told, he was a positive offensive performer against all the pitches he saw in 2022 other than the slider — which was also the pitch he saw the most. His whiff rate was 44.6 against sliders and his xBA and xSLG was the lowest of any pitch he saw outside of the splitter, but he only saw the splitter 12 times verses a slider of which he was challenged by a total of 413 times.
As seen below, breaking pitches cause Contreras issues early and late in the 2022 season. He swung and missed more than 50-percent of the time in both May and September.
His struggle against off-speed pitches also stands out, but throughout the season he saw off-speed pitches only approximately 10-percent of the time. For the season, the majority of pitches he saw were fastballs. Fastballs comprised 50 percent of his pitch total seen after May, when more than 60 percent of the pitches he saw were fastballs.
For the year, Contreras had a 47 percent hard-hit rate, and as shown in the chart below, he consistently pounded fastballs.
In June — the month with the biggest gap between those fastballs and breaking balls — he saw the fewest number of fastballs of the five months when he was a regular in Atlanta’s lineup. He saw fastballs only 48 percent of the time in June, but obviously ravaged the pitch while struggling against breaking pitches — by far more than any other month in the season.
To put a bow on the offensive side of Contreras’ 2022 season, you can see that his rolling xwOBA was above Major League average for most of the season.
The bottom line was that Contreras was up there hunting fastballs to crush, and had no shot against breaking pitches except in the rare instance he changed what he was looking for. Offspeed pitches also felt his wrath, because like fastballs, they don’t tend to have much break away from the barrel. His 2022 showed how you can succeed, with flying colors, at the dish by just doing one thing really well, and taking the lumps that come when pitchers try to get you out.
One thing that was interesting about Contreras is that despite his prodigious power output, he never really figured out launch angle in a way you’d expect for someone who hit 20 homers in a half-season. More than half his contact was on the ground, and he rarely hit the type of lazy fly that may or may not drift out of the park. This all kind of drowned out because of how good he was in barreling balls, but when you consider that he had almost as many barrels as weak fly balls, it kind of puts a useful improvement for the future into context.
On the defensive side of things, Contreras wasn’t quite as potent. He started 89 games overall for Atlanta, 34 coming at DH and one in left field. He was behind the plate for a total of 60 games, 57 of which came as the starter.
As the team’s catcher, Contreras struggled behind the plate framing pitches — especially those at the bottom of the zone. The positive is that is output there was identical to 2021. In 2021, in receiving 1,320 pitches, he had a strike rate of 45.2 percent. Last season, in 1,627 pitches, he had a strike rate again of 45.2 percent.
In limiting the opposing team’s run game, Contreras fared better with an overall pop time of 1.97 — slightly above average league — and besting that of d’Arnaud (2.0). Contreras was ranked 38th overall - by comparison J.T. Realmuto outgunned all other catchers with a 1.82 Pop Time.
Time for videos! Here’s Contreras tying the game in the ninth against Jake McGee, his highest-WPA play in his highest-WPA game of the year.
A lefty who only throws fastball is a pretty interesting matchup against Contreras with the game on the line, and you can see that again, Contreras whacked the ball but hit it on the ground, just through the infield this time. Contreras later stole second base (yes) and scored on Adam Duvall’s walkoff single to end the game.
Speaking of fortuitous grounders, check out this one, which gave the Braves a lead with two outs in the ninth.
Pretty amusing that for a guy who hit 20 homers, he had no homers that were higher than sixth in WPA for his season.
He had a few bad games here and there, too. One of the worst was in the Braves’ unexpected 3-2 loss to the Rockies at home in August. Contreras struck out against Jose Urena to start the second, made an out to end an inning with a man on second in the third (after the Braves took a 2-0 lead), and then made a couple more outs in his subsequent plate appearances, including a strikeout with the tying run on first and a one-run deficit in the eighth. This a good example of Contreras being bamboozled by a slider:
And here’s a very unhelpful grounder from him, where a changeup from a lefty fooled him into making bad contact:
2023 Season Outlook
William Contreras could have factored in as a notable part of the Braves’ plans in 2023, but his trade on December 12, 2022 — as part of the three-team deal that landed Atlanta catcher Sean Murphy from Oakland while sending Contreras to Milwaukee — means he will now play a substantial role for the Brewers instead.
It seemed unlikely that the Braves would go into next season with three catchers (including Manny Pina, who was traded to Oakland in the same deal with Murphy and Contreras) on the roster — although Contreras could have seen the majority of his time at designated hitter — but that is just a moot point now.
Given his youth and offensive performance, it did seem possible that Contreras could be part of a trade to address other positions, but as it turned out, Atlanta took the opportunity to upgrade at catcher instead.
With the Brewers, Contreras will get a chance to build on his offensive potential. Steamer projects Contreras to take a step back offensively with a wRC+ of 115 for the younger of the Contreras bothers, which is still fantastic performance if he seems most of his time at catcher and is still useful if he spends a large swath of time at DH. The current projections are something like an average producer in substantial-but-not-full playing time.
Regardless of how the 2023 season unfolds with Milwaukee, Contreras’ breakout 2022 made him a valuable asset for Atlanta this offseason. Happy trails, Wild Bill.