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Breaking Down The Cardinals’ Catching Conundrum

It Was A Whirlwind Behind The Plate Last Season, How Should The Team Handle The Job in 2024 and Beyond?

The conclusion of the 2022 season marked the end of an era in St. Louis Cardinals baseball.

It was the perfect setting: three team legends walking off the field at once for the last time to a resounding standing ovation; easily one of the strongest displays of gratitude from St. Louis sports fans in ages.

Albert Pujols wowed us with three MVPs and 700 career homers, while Adam Wainwright sealed the 2006 World Series and proceeded to spearhead the rotation for fifteen years.

Yet, it was Yadier Molina who was the cathode of the team’s battery for nearly two decades, delivering all-world defense and clutch-time hits for a team that won five pennants with him running the point. No other Redbird this century has shared his blend of longevity and production, especially at such a physically demanding position.

Cardinals’ Catching Fielding Runs Leader By Season

Season Fielding Runs Leader at C
Season Fielding Runs Leader at C
2016 Yadier Molina (10)
2017 Yadier Molina (8)
2018 Steven Barron (0)
2019 Yadier Molina (2)
2020 Yadier Molina (4)
2021 Yadier Molina (2)
2022 Yadier Molina (6)
2023 Ivan Herrera (0)

Yadi’s retirement would prove to have a clear impact on the team’s defense and the pitching staff. Save for 2018 and 2023, the Cardinals had a plus defender at catcher each year since 2016. Molina was far from 100% for most of 2018 as he nursed a pelvic hernia, but this past season made it apparent that we were spoiled for two decades as a fanbase.

The next generation is now here; with both Willson Contreras and Ivan Herrera on the roster going into 2024, Cardinals fans should be exhilarated about this year’s catching tandem. The question now is, how should Marmol divvy up catching duties between the former Cub and Molina’s mentee?

Tale of the Tape

Shoutout to Jacob, @JacobE_STL for providing me with the graphics below.

Ivan Herrera

Ivan Herrera quickly ascended prospect lists after tearing up 2018 and 2019 in the low minors. Long believed to be the guy to replace Molina, he hit an offensive road bump in the high minors. Subsequently, management decided Ivan wasn’t quite ready to take over full-time duties, instead rewarding Willson with $88 million to fill Molina’s shoes.

It turns out all Ivan needed was some extra TLC at Memphis to begin 2023, where he posted a 147 wRC+ to go along with a 20 BB% and a 20.5 K% in 375 PAs.

Herrera was known for consistently running advanced contact rates as a younger prospect, but it wasn’t until 2023 that he put it all together on offense, fine-tuning his vertical barrel accuracy and allowing his raw power to talk more.

I’m thrilled he’s finally lifting because this was the component that lagged far behind Herrera’s most translateable MLB skill thus far: his plate discipline.

Earlier this week, you guys read Blake’s article on plate discipline. I wanted to highlight his fifth takeaway, where he mentions how a key factor of swing efficiency is the frequency at which a hitter is uncorking at pitches in his hot zones.

This is where SEAGER comes into play, as seen on the player cards above. Named after the reigning World Series MVP, it’s a measure of how selectively aggressive a hitter is at swinging at pitches in his wheelhouse. Corey himself is the league’s leader in the metric, displaying what is arguably baseball’s best overall approach. Here’s a link to the article written by Robert Orr.

The Strike Zone Is (kind of) A Social Construct

What separates SEAGER from simply subtracting chase % from zone swing % is its attempt to unshackle the analyst from the confines of the strike zone, instead quantifying all hittable pitches regardless of balls and strikes. If a hitter has proven he can nip at pitches outside of the zone and produce quality contact, why should he be penalized simply because it wasn’t within the zone? This isn’t something Z-O-Swing% is capable of tracking because results for each part are binary, merely pitches in or out of the zone.

Another existing and interesting concept is nitro zone-swing %, which attempts to measure the hitter’s swing rate at pitches in his 95th percentile EV wheelhouse, otherwise known as his nitro-zone. This isn’t publicly available, but the framework behind the model is arguably the best for quantifying overall plate discipline that I’ve seen to date, employing independent BBE data instead of dependent result statistics.

Corey is an anomaly in that he excels in his namesake stat (as he should be) and in Z-O-Swing%, a predecessor to SEAGER. This new metric aims to boost players like Ivan, who in both AAA and MLB hasn’t been known to swing a ton at offerings in the zone. However, one glance at his heat maps from both levels paints a clearer picture as to why he’s had a license to chase.

Ivan Herrera 2023 OPS by zone (AAA)
Ivan Herrera 2023 xwOBA by zone (MLB)

xwOBA isn’t a metric publicly available at the AAA level, but OPS serves as a decent proxy. Ivan is raking to the tune of 0.918 and 0.875 OPS, respectively, up near his chest both away and inside. His 0.778 OPS low and away is nothing to scoff at either. Mind you, these three zones account for 28% of all of his AAA plate appearances.

It’s more of the same story at the big-league level. Admittedly at a much smaller sample size, Herrera crushed pitches up and both away and in (0.393 and 0.348 xwOBA, respectively).

If we stopped at Z-O with Herrera, we’d think his swing decisions aren’t the greatest because he’s swinging at pitches outside of the zone, but he’s thriving there, so we must give heavier consideration to his production away and inside. In doing so, it becomes apparent that his approach can become one of the best in baseball.

Going forward, this will give Ivan a nice floor as a hitter, knowing he’ll heavily tend to crush pitches to his liking while efficiently spitting on ones he doesn’t. He already has the raw thump to go yard 20+ times a season, so combining this with better plate discipline will be essential in determining what caliber of hitter he’ll eventually evolve into.

The Panamanian import also impressed the team staff defensively; Kyle Reis, @kyler416 on Twitter, recalled Herrera displaying an improvement in his framing abilities as the AAA season progressed, especially with pitches low in the zone. In a small sample at the MLB level, Herrera’s 46.2 called strike% led the team and puts him squarely at league average, a value I believe will continue to rise as the defensive game slows down for him.

A general rule of thumb is to give bat-first catchers as much time as they need to develop behind the plate, and given his age and framing improvements just this year, I’m confident we’ll see improvements in this department too.

Ivan is no Yadier Molina with his arm, but his 78.6 MPH average arm velocity ranks 58th out of 99 catchers this season with at least one throw down to second base.

Overall, there isn’t a glaring weakness in Ivan’s game. He’s a very solid all-around catcher who may not excel at any one skill aside from his swing decisions, but you can count on him to be at least average in every other facet of his game. I think he’ll be an above-average offensive threat, but I’ll nitpick and say he can swing more in the zone by expanding his overall wheelhouse, someday hopefully feeling more comfortable doing damage with a wider variety of hittable pitches in the zone. Again, he is already elite with pitches he does swing at, and because his overall swing% is still very low, there is still room for added aggression without compromising his production. His blocking could also use some work; Ivan registered -3 blocks below average in limited innings behind the plate, but this should improve with time as well. Even if it doesn’t, he’ll shut down the run game and he’s a decent enough framer to serve as an average defensive catcher at minimum.

Willson Contreras

A three-time All-Star, no introduction is needed for one of the best offensive catchers in baseball. After a rough start to begin his Cardinal campaign, Willson arguably finished off the season as baseball’s best hitter over a three-month span.

Defensive woes led to Willson’s benching while the team scrambled to patch together a contingency plan. This resulted in a nightmare Andrew Knizner/Contreras platoon for a significant chunk of the season, but in 125 games the Venezuelan veteran was still good for a 127 wRC+ and hit 20 home runs.

Much like Herrera, Willson is also a very efficient swinger, ranking in the 88th percentile in SEAGER. However, Contreras makes up for lower contact rates with his premium power and overall more aggressive approach on pitches in the zone (Willson has a higher Z-Swing%).

Willson Contreras 2023 xwOBA by zone

Here, we can see that Willson also makes part of his living chasing (and demolishing) pitches away, registering a .422 xwOBA high and away, and a .358 xwOBA low and away. Both of these zones account for 17% of Contreras’s total season PAs, once again showing how a significant amount of a hitter’s production can come from pitches we’ve conventionally been told to lay off from.

Aside from his impressive discipline, a compelling case can be made that Contreras is the best power-hitting catcher in the sport, so it’s deflating to see how much pine time he saw because of his poor defense. More on this later.

It’s difficult to complain about Willson’s offensive production at all from last year, especially during the second half of the season, but it’s always worth examining how a hitter can improve or better maintain the success he had.

As seen above, his season bat speed average of 72.1 MPH ranks in the 92nd percentile in all of baseball and is tops amongst all catchers with at least 300 PAs. This seamlessly translates to some of the hardest-hit balls in the game, as Contreras routinely tattoos mistakes thrown his way.

The most effective batted ball events are pulled fly balls and line drives, which is intuitive given how your momentum carries you when you swing. Since it’s much easier to generate power pull-side for any hitter, those who can shoot missiles within eight and 32 vertical degrees toward a shorter field will, in theory, have the most success on paper. Therefore, it would be to Contreras’s advantage to pull as much as possible. He did towards the middle and end of the season but struggled to do so out of the gates.

Willson Contreras 2023 Pulled Ball Data- Monthly Breakdown

Month Pull % xwOBACON
Month Pull % xwOBACON
March/April 30.10% 0.41
May 38.60% 0.42
June 40.40% 0.417
July 38.20% 0.51
August 42.10% 0.462
September 41.20% 0.483
2023 MLB League Average: 41.1%

Willson wasn’t exactly pulling the ball at an insane rate, never doing so much higher than the league average. Yet, when he did start pulling, we saw an increase in his offensive output. Of course, this production will stall out at some point, but I can only imagine the kind of added damage Willy is capable of doing if he turns into Isaac Paredes or Max Muncy, both of whom pulled over half of their batted balls.

On the other side of the ball, the positives are fewer and further between. We knew before Willson touched ink to paper that his framing and blocking would be shaky, ultimately contributing to the larger chemistry issues between the pitching staff and the catchers.

His one merit on defense is his ability to control the run game. It’s about as close as we’re going to get to Yadi patrolling the basepaths, but he’s not a bad alternative.

Contreras’s bounce and arm strength combine to punish the game’s peskiest thieves, registering four caught steals above average for the season. He achieved this through a 1.90 average pop time (71st percentile) and an 80.9 MPH average arm strength (68th percentile). Effectively patrolling the basepaths will buoy his overall negative defensive value.

Willson Contreras 2023 strike rate by zone

Willson’s lack of framing and blocking skills severely hampered the team last season. His -6 framing runs were the worst on the team behind both Knizner and Herrera. This isn’t the best picture, but one can see he gets his call at the top of the zone and struggles to have his glove play magician in any other part. Similarly, as a blocker, Contreras registered a mere -1 block below average, definitely not what we’ve been used to seeing for twenty years.

It’s Contreras’s lack of defensive ability that ultimately inspired me to write this article, mainly because of the domino effect it had on the rest of the season. I was shocked at just how glaring the issue became but at this point in his career, what you see from Willson is what you get from Willson. He’ll always be a tank with the bat in his hands, but how playable is he given his defensive miscues?

Concerns aside, there’s a reason Contreras cashed in last offseason, becoming one of the largest financial investments in franchise history at $88 million. His offensive production is just so damn good that he’ll find 400+ plate appearances a season regardless of how poor his defense is.

The Plan

With two potential All-Stars behind the plate, lineup construction duties should be a lot more fun this year.

Ivan Herrera simply wasn’t developed enough by Opening Day last year to take over for Molina; DeWitt could’ve saved himself almost $90 million if this were the case. It’s not Herrera’s fault that his timeline didn’t quite fit in with Molina hanging ‘em up; from Carson Kelly to Andrew Knizner, there’ve been numerous failures in developing an heir apparent to number 4.

However, Ivan’s finally starting to blossom, and because his game is more well-rounded than Willson’s, Herrera should be receiving the bulk of the catching reps in 2024, getting somewhere between 60 and 70% of the total reps. Contreras should fill in on rest days and on specific battery pairings where he was hand-picked by a Cardinals’ starter to catch him.

This combination will go a long way in ensuring the pitchers and catchers are on the same page in 2024 and beyond. Herrera is a better game-caller, a better framer, and potentially a better blocker. He may never be the same offensive threat Willson is, but Herrera’s approach will always give him a fighting chance at the plate, with his plus raw power rounding out one of the more complete profiles in a young catcher today.

Now, what to do with Contreras? Simply DH him. Yes, you’re hurting his output by removing him from the field, but part of this cost is sunk since it’s a fully guaranteed contract anyway. The signing’s been worth it to this point, and even with a shift off of the diamond, he can be a deadly offensive force. If he learns to pull the ball more frequently (45%+), watch out.

Your defensive layout is now as follows:

2. Herrera/Contreras

3. Goldschmidt

4. Gorman/Donovan

5. Arenado

6. Winn/Edman

7. Nootbaar/Carlson

8. Edman/Carlson

9. Walker/Carlson

Donovan is your ultra-flex guy whom you can find 500 or more PAs for because he can be plugged in anywhere, so I’m not worried about finding him a permanent home.

Who knows how much playing time Dylan Carlson will get, but because I think it’ll be over 200 PAs, it’s worth throwing him into the mix.

This is a solid lineup overall; it’s missing another quality bat, but that’s a story for another day.

Final Thoughts

Oli Marmol and his staff have a great problem on their hands. Not many teams have the luxury of having any sort of up-the-middle talent on their team, let alone two franchise catchers. As much as I love Willson Contreras; his offensive skillset, his passion for the game, and his leadership in the clubhouse, it’s clear that the pitching staff was well-used to a true field general at catcher. If your lineup is strong enough, you won’t need to rely as heavily on your backstop for offensive production. Because Herrera checks more boxes while still holding his own offensively, he ranks as the best starting option at catcher moving forward.

Be sure to follow @adamakbani on Twitter for up-to-date news and analysis on the St. Louis Cardinals!