Contreras aims to beat recovery time projections

June 13th, 2024

This story was excerpted from John Denton’s Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. LOUIS -- When the Cardinals make their first trip of the season to Wrigley Field to face the rival Cubs this weekend, injured catcher won’t be behind the plate or pounding out hits against his former team.

But it certainly won’t be for a lack of trying.

Contreras fractured the ulna bone in his left forearm when he was hit by the swinging bat of J.D. Martinez on May 7. He has been recovering from that injury at warp speed, so much so that the Cardinals have had to work to slow him down from trying to do too much as the titanium-plated bone in his forearm continues to heal.

Contreras underwent surgery on May 8. Two days later, kids in his suburban St. Louis neighborhood came by his house to sign his cast, only to find that the catcher had already convinced doctors to remove the wrapping over his arm. A day later, Contreras was already back in the batting cage, swinging a bat with just his right hand and arm to try to keep his batting eye as sharp as possible -- even though he would be sidelined for the foreseeable future.

And, Contreras said somewhat sheepishly on Wednesday, when trainers weren’t looking, he even gripped the bat with two hands at times and lightly tested out his forearm with a few swings. Just for peace of mind, he needed to know that he was on the road to recovery.

Original medical projections had Contreras missing approximately 12 weeks due to the injury, meaning he likely wouldn’t be back behind the plate for the Cardinals until after the July 16 MLB All-Star Game. Privately, Contreras laughed at those calculations, vowing to be back by late June or early July -- just eight weeks after the gruesome injury.

“Hell yeah,” Contreras said with a playful laugh when asked if he took it as a challenge to return sooner than the projections of team doctors.

At the time of his injury, Contreras had been the Cardinals' best player. In 31 games, he hit .280 with six home runs and led the team with a .949 OPS. Additionally, he had worked all offseason with his brother, Brewers catcher William Contreras, to get his body and his target lower to help Cards pitchers steal more strike calls.

Gone were the claims from 2023 that Contreras was a deficient catcher. More than ever, St. Louis needs his defense and strong right arm back behind the plate, as opponents are 40-for-43 in stolen-base attempts against rookie catcher this season.

Then came the moment when Martinez’s bat struck Contreras’ forearm, causing the Cardinals catcher to yell out so loudly that he could be heard in the upper reaches of Busch Stadium. Other teams have moved their catcher closer to the plate and the hitter in hopes of earning more low strike calls, and the Cards were no different with Contreras. Only the veteran catcher got too close on that play, and he paid dearly for it.

Some athletes refuse to watch footage of the moment they were injured, but Contreras watched intently to try to learn from the incident.

“I watched it a couple of times, and I saw that I was super close to home and the batter,” Contreras said. “I don’t know what happened or why it happened. The [pitch] clock was running down, and my glove was coming up during the pitch and it just happened. I’ll learn from it and be more aware about where I set up.”

Contreras said teammates have jokingly started calling him “Wolverine” because of the titanium plate and screws that he has in his forearm, and possibly because of how he has ferociously attacked his rehab. He’s already catching bullpen sessions for Cardinals pitchers daily, and he’s progressed to the point where he’s taking batting practice off flip throws from coaches.

Contreras said when he sees his lengthy forearm scar -- one that required 20 stitches to close -- he is reminded of the initial pain he was in when Martinez's bat hit his forearm. Near the scar, Contreras has two interlocking tattoos: “Believe in the impossible” and “Success didn’t come to me, I looked for it.” They speak to Contreras’ rare ability to find positives even in a negative situation.

He is confident that he is on the road to recovery, and he thinks he’ll be playing for the Cardinals again by July 2 -- the eight-week anniversary of the fracture and nearly a month ahead of medical projections.

“The scar is just part of life and part of baseball,” he said. “To me, it’s a minor setback for a major comeback.”