Over the winter, the Contreras brothers — both All-Star-caliber hitters not exactly known for their defensive prowess — changed teams.
After spending his whole career — and winning a world championship — with the Chicago Cubs, free agent Willson Conteras signed a five-year, $87.5 million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, who were looking to replace a living legend revered for his defense in Yadier Molina. After spending his whole career — and winning a world championship — with the Atlanta Braves, William Contreras was part of a three-team trade that landed him on the Milwaukee Brewers, who have a knack for turning bat-first backstops into more well-rounded players adept at preventing runs.
For Willson, it has gone … well, you’ve probably seen the headlines. His new team struggled mightily in the early going, and less than a quarter of the way into the 2023 season, the questions about his catching became questions about moving him off the position altogether. The pitching staff, predicted and projected to be a weakness for the club, was costing the Cardinals games, and — despite how they tried to spin it later — blame fell on the decidedly non-Molina-caliber replacement for Molina.
The response was broadly that the Cardinals brass was being rash and ridiculous — both because Willson’s below-average defense was a known commodity and because relegating him to designated hitter hardly seemed like the best way to help him improve as a catcher.
Meanwhile, William Contreras is baseball’s fourth-best pitch framer this season, according to Statcast, a stunning improvement over last year, when he was 46th. (Willson is 30th this season, comparable to last year, when he was 32nd.) William is first on Statcast’s blocking leaderboard, compared to Willson at 66th.
And that’s just some of the measurable metrics. So you have to wonder: How?
“I think first and foremost is the relationship-building thing that none of us are really able to measure. It’s just making our pitchers feel comfortable, and that comes from the physical stuff, like, you know, the confidence to bury a breaking ball with a guy on third, when they put their fingers down and you trust what they're calling. That stems from the trust and the relationship-building,” said Walker McKinven, the Brewers’ associate pitching, catching and strategy coach.
“That’s No. 1 to me. I mean, I think that's the baseline of what makes a good catcher.”
McKinven, a former Indy League pitcher, worked his way into coaching catchers through handling the team’s advance scouting. Under his tutelage, catchers Manny Piña and Omar Narváez dramatically improved on defense before moving on to other teams. For the small-market but notably savvy Brewers, McKinven is always monitoring catchers around the league, looking for the next opportunity to turn a one-dimensional player into a double-threat.
“When it related to William, it was like, 'This guy's a freak athletically in all things catching.' I mean, he didn't throw a ton of dudes out last year, but you could tell there was quickness and arm strength in his transfers and his throws,” McKinven said.
Combine that with the strong foundation McKinven was confident the Braves, a capable catching organization, would’ve instilled in William: “I thought the sky was kind of the limit for him, specifically. More so even than some of the other guys we’ve tried this with.”
Good coaching comes from tailoring organizational goals to individual personalities. Narváez, for instance, arrived in Milwaukee humble about his catching ability and eager to hear what the Brewers wanted him to change.
“William came in confident,” McKinven said. “Like, ‘No, I got this. I’m already good. I'm going to show you guys and everyone else: I'm already good.’”
William believed the Braves hadn’t given him enough of an opportunity. Instead, they’d trusted Travis d'Arnaud with the bulk of the innings before they acquired Gold Glover Sean Murphy in the deal that landed William in Milwaukee.
“It’s not an excuse ever,” McKinven said, “but when you’re catching once a week versus five times a week, it’s a lot harder to stay completely locked in with your timing and your flow and everything that we do back there.”
And that’s important because, in McKinven’s estimation, staying focused on every single pitch — prioritizing the impact that game-calling and pitch-framing can have on a team’s overall performance — is “more than half the battle, honestly.”
Along with physical tweaks that McKinven declined to delve into — although he acknowledged that William has been relying on arm strength to throw from his knees in his efforts to control the running game — the Brewers were able to take William’s confidence and competitiveness and apply them to mastering the receiving side of the game.
“There's just this culture that we've built here that we think is really important,” McKinven said. “And everyone's kind of aware of it. It's not this unspoken thing. It's spoken of in the dugout, on the field. Everyone knows about it.”
The Brewers are explicit and demonstrative in explaining how big an impact those receiving skills can have on a team’s season and a player’s earning potential. William is already an All-Star with the bat, “so the opportunity to do both of those things, it’s unique and it's super, super valuable to them and to us," McKinven said.
Now, ahead of every start behind the plate, William completes a 20-minute receiving routine with a pitching machine before he even starts working with that night’s pitcher. It’s important practice, helps him to get locked in, “and if we want to make a little bit of an adjustment, he's totally willing to do that,” McKinven said. “And that's all I ask is that you're putting in the effort and willing to make an adjustment here or there along the way.”
In a strange about-face from the organization, Willson Contreras will return to catching for the Cardinals on Monday, the day they open a series against William’s Brewers. It’s impossible to know from the outside what went wrong in St. Louis and whether it would’ve gone differently if the teams or the brothers had been switched. Willson, too, is proud and presumably a hard worker. He’s at least as athletic as his brother. Maybe, at 31 years old, his habits were more ingrained than those of the 25-year-old William.
McKinven says the Brewers have been lucky to get guys who buy into all that the team asks of them — “because we ask a ton of them,” he said, “we really do” — and certainly, the players themselves deserve as much credit as the coaches who oversee their transformations. But that’s not luck, and neither is the Brewers’ ability to find players with the right potential and implement a successful plan.