Here's why Contreras is a secret weapon with new rules

February 24th, 2023

JUPITER, Fla. -- As he was learning about MLB’s new rules limiting pitcher pick-off throws and the times when they can step off the rubber to control the opposition’s running game, new Cardinals catcher Willson Contreras picked up on an omission that certainly appealed to him.

Contreras, MLB's catching leader in pickoffs since 2016 (25), noticed there is no rule governing the number of times he can fire the ball to bases -- a “back-pick,” in baseball parlance -- to either retire or at least worry potential baserunners.

“Teams are going to try to take advantage of the new rules and run, so we have to be smart with our pickoffs and when our catchers back-pick runners,” said Contreras, whose 25 pickoffs since his MLB debut are nearly double the next closest active catcher (13). “Even if you don’t get an out, you keep the runner honest. And there’s no count on those.”

When the Cards open Grapefruit League action at Roger Dean Stadium on Saturday, Contreras will be behind the plate in game action for the first time as a Cardinal. Gone, of course, is nine-time Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina following his retirement. In comes Contreras, a three-time All-Star and a 2016 World Series champion after signing a five-year deal with the Cards.

Contreras will be working with Cardinal cornerstone Adam Wainwright against the Nationals. The 30-year-old catcher has been at the spring complex since late January to build chemistry with the likes of Wainwright and Miles Mikolas, who will depart soon to play for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. Contreras had the opportunity to play in the Classic for his native Venezuela, but he declined.

While Contreras should be a dramatic offensive upgrade at catcher for the Cardinals, the seven-year veteran is working to become a better defensive backstop. The Cards aren’t expecting him to be the equivalent of Molina, who led the league in caught-stealing percentage four times and threw out 40% of potential baserunners in his illustrious 19-year career. But the club is working with Contreras on becoming a better pitch framer.

Last season, Contreras ranked 28th in catch-framing runs prevented and 44th in strike rate, per Baseball Savant. While he was 16th in framing outside-corner pitches to right handers, he was 55th in framing outside-corner pitches to lefties and 53rd in framing low strikes to all hitters.

“We’ll put together a plan and figure out how to improve those specific areas,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “It's easy to say this when Yadi has been at the position for [what seems like] 68 years, but with our guys their early work [gameplanning] is so detailed and it’s phenomenal. Exposing [Contreras] to that will help. There are things he's working on daily that are super encouraging, and we couldn't ask for any more buy-in or enthusiasm than what Willson has given us.”

While Marmol pulled no punches in pointing out that there is room for improvement on framing, the manager sang a completely different tune when the topic turned to Contreras' throwing arm and his willingness to throw behind runners. He thinks the catcher's brazenness in throwing the ball to first and third base should help the Cardinals better control the running game this season.

When rules were installed limiting the number of pitcher “disengagements” with the rubber -- in the form of step-offs and pick-off attempts -- in the Minor Leagues in 2022, stolen-base attempts rose 26%, per MLB research. If that heightens the importance of having a strong-armed catcher, Marmol feels the Cardinals will be in a solid spot defensively.

“I think we got the right guy for it,” Marmol said. “Even with the disengagement rules, there’s strategy around guys taking bigger leads and us having a guy who can back-pick really well. He’s one of the best at it, and that should keep guys from stretching out their primary and secondary [leads]. I think it’ll play a big part.”

Contreras said he welcomes more runners trying steal bases against him in his first season as a Cardinal. And if they stray too far off a bag, he won’t hesitate to throw and potentially add to his pickoff total.

“That was something I had never tried, and then once I did it for the first time, I realized that’s a skill that I have,” Contreras said. “I kind of get fuel from it when I pick a guy off. Over the years, my numbers have gone down because the runners know I like to throw behind them.”