Swings and Takes: Tools of ignorance

Catcher is perpetually one of the hardest positions to find offense from at the major league level. The defensive demands of the position are endless, and most teams in 2024 seem to value defensive contributions for catchers more than offense. This has become especially true within roughly the last five years with the improved ability to quantify those contributions. Metrics such as Framing Runs Above Average, Blocking Runs Above Average, and Throwing Runs Above Average have improved our understanding of catcher defensive contributions, and quantification of skills naturally has a strong positive relationship with valuing specific abilities; if you can measure it you are going to care more about it. In the fantasy space we naturally take an opposite approach, as Framing Runs Above Average is not a category in any fantasy league we have ever seen (probably exists somewhere at this point), but finding a good offensive catcher is often a large advantage at a historically tough position to find offense. So far we have seen a surprising number of primary position catchers with at least 100 PAs post above-average hitting lines (100 or greater wRC+), 21 as of the start of play on June 2 (15 at this same time in 2023, 10 in 2022). Today we want to spotlight one of the best and youngest, as well as provide notes on a few other catchers and their offensive approaches so far in 2024. 

Prince William of Backstop

After a disappointing 2022 playoff run in which they were bumped in the NLDS despite winning 101 games in the regular season, the Braves decided to upgrade at the catcher position. They completed a three-team trade with the Brewers and Athletics in which they sent young pitching to the Athletics and a young catcher to the Brewers in order to acquire Sean Murphy, one of the best all-around catchers in baseball. The young catcher sent to Milwaukee had a reputation already for being an above-average hitting catcher who struggled on the defensive end. The Brewers have long had the reputation for helping to improve catchers defensively, dating back to Jonathan Lucroy and extending to, among others, Yasmani Grandal. William Contreras has extended this tradition and has not only improved on defense, but this year has taken a major step up on the offensive end. Now, it could easily be argued that he is is the best offensive catcher in baseball, with a .322/.394/.498 triple slash line and 154 wRC+, supported by top tier expected numbers (83rd percentile or better in xwOBA, xBA, xSLG, and Hard-Hit%). His improvement has come largely through a very interesting approach change that is hard to pull off for most hitters.

Contreras, the younger brother of Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras, struggled in his rookie season of 2021, chasing at an above-average rate of 31.9% (compared to the MLB average of 28.4%), whiffing a ton at 36.4%, and putting together a .215/.303/.399 triple slash line. He broke out as a hitter in 2022 by starting to understand the strike zone while crushing most things that he hit, with a 95th percentile xISO, 91st percentile Brl%, and a 54th percentile Chase Rate in his rookie year, on his way to a 139 wRC+. 

Even at this level of production, which was second-best for all catchers with at least 200 PAs behind only Danny Jansen (141 wRC+), Contreras was not yet a complete hitter. He had one major weakness that carried over from his rookie year, which was his penchant for racking up a ton of whiffs, putting up a putrid 6th percentile Whiff% at 34.3%. This was better than his 36.4% mark from 2021 but still poor enough to significantly lower his offensive floor. They say in some sports, such as basketball and football, that weaknesses are truly exploited in the postseason, when teams can game plan more intensely. While this is less true in baseball due to the inherent randomness over small samples, it certainly appeared that way for Contreras in the 2022 NLDS. He went 1-for-8 overall in the series (1 2B and 4 Ks), starting with a 2B and a BB in the series opener before seeing little in the strike zone over his other two games played. This swing was a good representation of Contreras’ G3 and G4 of that series:

Thor against Contreras 2022 NLDS