When the St. Louis Cardinals signed Willson Contreras in the offseason, big things were expected out of their prized acquisition. Not only was he taking the place of franchise icon Yadier Molina behind the dish, but he was also coming off of his third All Star season where he hit 22 homers and had an xwOBA of .364 which was in the 94th percentile in baseball. This season though he has struggled badly to the tune of a triple slash line of .201/.293/.355 with eight homers, certainly not what the Cards were expecting when they handed him $87,500,000 this offseason. So, what has gone wrong for the former Chicago Cub? Is it a case of bad luck, an adjustment in his stance, has he just regressed as a player or is it possible he is actually getting better?
Stats are as of June 20th.
Yes and no. There has certainly been an element of bad luck to Contreras’ game this season. For the most part, his expected metrics are in line with where they have sat over the past couple of seasons as the chart below shows.
Willson Contreras expected metrics
Has he regressed a bit in terms of his xwOBA on contact only? Yes, but when you look at the other numbers, they were largely in line with his 2021 numbers which is likely the hitter that he is, which is not a bad thing. In fact, some of the metrics this season are actually better or the same for Contreras this season compared to last year. His barrel rate of 6.8 percent is the same as it was in 2022, his average exit velocity is up 0.6 MPH to 91 MPH and his walk rate is at 10.2 percent, a one percent increase from 2022. None of those numbers are massive jumps by any means, but they do show us that in certain ways, Contreras is still similar to the hitter he was in his final year in Chicago.
Where has he improved?
Contreras is actually posting career numbers against off-speed pitches this season. Both his xwOBA of .353 and xSLG of .428 against breaking balls is the highest those two numbers have been in a non-covid shortened season since 2017. Additionally, the 25 percent whiff rate and .241 xBA he has against them are career bests in non-covid seasons. Whilst it is just one pitch type that he sees only 11.5 percent of the time, it is encouraging to see that he is still growing as a hitter at the age of 31.
On top of his improvement against off-speed pitches, his whiff rate is the lowest it has been in his career at 27.3 percent and his zone contact is at a career high of 84.1 percent, the highest it has been by 5.2 percent. In addition to those two metrics, his chase contact rate of 51.9 percent is the highest it has been since 2019. All of which are encouraging numbers and lead us to believe that Contreras is not struggling to see the ball or anything like that at the moment.
Where has he regressed?
Despite all the good we just spoke about above, there has been some considerable areas of regression in Contreras’ game this season. His xwOBA of .351 and xSLG of .450 against fastballs are both the second lowest that he has posted in a single season.
His hard-hit rate (batted balls hit 95+MPH) of 44.5 percent is 4.1 percent lower than last year’s mark and is the lowest it has been since 2019.
When looking at his batted ball profile though one thing does seem to be evident though which is he is trying to work the ball in the air more. His pop-up rate has also seen a small spike going from 5.7 percent last season to 7.5 percent this season. Whilst 1.8 percent might not seem like a significant jump it is not worthy because pop ups are batted balls that carry just about zeroes across the board when it comes to expected metrics. As a result, the most pop ups a batter has the worse his metrics are going to look in the grand scene of things. In addition to that, his fly ball percentage of 26 percent is the highest it has been in his career and his under percentage of 23.1 percent is the second highest mark of his career and 6.6 percent higher than it was last season.
Is there a change in his swing?
One thing that I always like to look at when a player is struggling after changing teams is, is there a change to his stance and in the case of Contreras I do not see anything of significance.
If you wanted to nitpick maybe you could say that he is ever so slightly more closed off with his stance this year but there is nothing there that would lead me to believe it has been the reason, he has regressed.
Honestly, I think people, me included, expected too much of Contreras this season. Based on his career numbers prior to this season, 2022 was an outlier and it continues to be. He is showing himself to be more of the hitter he was in 2021 this season which by no means is a bad thing. Contreras despite some regression has been extremely unlucky this season as highlighted above and is still one of the better offensive catchers in the game. I think over the course of the season we will see Contreras return to the numbers he posted in 2021 which will certainly help a struggling Cardinals offense, but it will likely be too little too late in terms of saving their season.