Contreras leads Cardinals to victory with bat -- and glove

April 3rd, 2024

SAN DIEGO -- hit his second two-run home run in as many nights on Tuesday -- this one a go-ahead shot that vaulted the Cardinals into the lead and paved the way for a win -- but that wasn’t the thing that had him smiling and pumping his fists at his locker in the joyous clubhouse.

While Contreras was plenty happy about the 420-foot homer he tagged in the sixth inning that propelled the Cardinals to a 5-2 victory over the Padres at Petco Park, it was his dramatic improvement as catcher that had him downright glowing. A year after struggling to steal strikes with his pitch-framing skills, Contreras went into Tuesday as MLB’s top catcher in terms of earning strikes on pitches that are considered borderline, or the width of the baseball either on or off the plate.

Among catchers who had caught 60 borderline pitches going into Tuesday, Contreras’ 54 strikes in 100 instances (54 percent) are first in baseball. After a winter of working to get his body and target lower, Contreras has made marked improvement from 2023 when he finished a dismal 30th out of 43 qualified catchers by getting strikes on just 44.5 percent of borderline pitches. That news had him pumping both fists and beaming with pride.

“I set a goal this year of whether I’m hot or not hitting, behind the plate and with our pitchers, I need to be one of the best [defensively],” said Contreras, who worked all winter with brother and Brewers catcher William Contreras to become a better pitch framer. “[Catching] is fun when you bring your focus to something and you know that you worked your butt off all offseason to get better. Hitting is fun when you hit, but it’s not fun if you’re not hitting. If I’m cold at the plate, but I’m still stealing strikes and we’re keeping the innings short for my pitchers, that’s giving us a big chance to win games. I’m really trying to set my mind on enjoying the moment and be there for my team.”

Contreras was there for the Cardinals on Tuesday when they needed him after going into the sixth inning trailing, 2-1, and struggling to find much traction against Padres starter Yu Darvish. Having caught Darvish years earlier when they were teammates in Chicago, Contreras looked for a splitter in his third at-bat and jumped all over the pitch when he got it. He smashed an 87.3 mph splitter 420 feet over the wall in right-center to give the Cardinals a 3-2 lead.

Coincidentally, Tuesday’s home run landed just a few feet away from where Contreras hit a 419-foot, two-run shot in the first inning of Monday’s win. Manager Oliver Marmol has noticed that when Contreras is at his best at the plate, he focuses on hitting the ball back up the middle. He likes what he’s seen the past two nights from the three-time All-Star catcher.

“This dude is really good,” Marmol said of the catcher, who signed a five-year, $87.5 million contract with the Cardinals before the 2023 season. “He’s competitive and he wants to kill. And I’m glad he’s in our uniform.”

Contreras’ homer made a winner out of batterymate , who bounced back nicely from a poor performance on Opening Day against the Dodgers. Mikolas worked out of trouble in the second and fourth innings. He scattered seven hits over six innings on Tuesday while allowing just two earned runs. He had more strikeouts (four) than swing-and-misses (three) on 88 pitches and walked just one Padre while crediting his catcher for his work behind the plate and with the bat.

“The way he swings the bat is incredible, but what he’s been able to do with some of the criticism from last year, some of which was unwarranted,” Mikolas said. “For him to take some of that criticism and go and work on stealing some strikes and working with us on our pregame reports, I think that’s overlooked and he’s become very good [defensively]. He’s our catcher and our quarterback.”

As a nine-year veteran and a three-time All-Star Game starter, Contreras could have resisted changing his catching style. However, he said last season’s 71-91 record in St. Louis had him working to do whatever it took to help turn things around.

“Reflecting on what happened last year and what I needed to do to get better, I talked to my wife, and she said I needed to enjoy it more,” Contreras said. “That’s one thing my family can see through the TV. I need to smile more and enjoy the moment. I want to be one of the best in the game, and to do that, you have to work no matter what.”