The catcher position might be the most complex to evaluate in all sports. The St. Louis Cardinals had one of the best to ever do it in Yadier Molina for almost two decades, and his impact was specifically historic in the area that the average fan cannot see.
Willson Contreras was never going to replace that. But I think too many within Cardinals Nation ignored the outside concerns that many raised with his signing in the offseason - myself included.
It's hard not to get excited about a guy who brings such a big bat to a position that had been below average at the plate for St. Louis for years. It's even harder to not believe in the guy when Contreras was so open about his desire to replace Molina behind the plate.
All Cardinals fans should be rooting for Contreras. And don't get me wrong, he's a good player. That's especially true when his bat is as hot as it's been lately.
Over his last 15 games, Contreras is slashing .396/.492/.660 with 2 HR and 8 RBI while striking out just 11 times. After batting just .158/.248/.307 during the month of May and beginning June slow as well, Contreras has really caught fire as of late.
When his bat is this good, it's easier to overlook the defensive miscues and the new report that Contreras was calling pitches that the pitcher on the mound didn't even throw earlier in the season, leading to his removal from the catcher position.
The Cardinals knew they were getting a bat-first catcher when they got Contreras, but at some point, the errors and miscues become too big of an issue for even a veteran catcher like Contreras.
Willson Contreras has to be better behind the plate, or the Cardinals are in big trouble long-term
Yes, the Cardinals are in big trouble for the 2023 season regardless of Contreras' catching ability. And no, I'm not blaming the Cardinals' issues on him. I already addressed how the Cardinals' pitching staff has to take the majority of the ownership for their pitching woes. But Contreras still remains a part of the issue.
If you look at Contreras' rankings on Baseball Savant defensively...it's not pretty. He's the 49th-ranked catcher in framing runs, 38th in strike percentage, and 57th in blocks above average (including ranking 45th in blocking pitches that have a 95% probability of being blocked). According to FanGraphs, he ranks 85th among catchers with -6 defensive runs saved on the season.
Those are just the stats that we can measure. As I stated earlier, there has been frustration from the Cardinals' pitching staff regarding Contreras' ability to call games, and the front office and coaching staff's frustration with his game prep.
This isn't to say that the Cardinals will be miles better if they had a better defensive catcher behind the plate, but it's like so many of their issues this season - it's helped to compound the rest. When the pitching is bad, well, their catcher's defensive woes become an even bigger issue. If Contreras can't figure things out and become at least passable behind the plate, the club will be forced to make some difficult choices over the offseason.
I will be interested to see how St. Louis handles the trade deadline and the offseason when it comes to Ivan Herrera. Herrera has been excellent for Triple-A Memphis this year and is now on the Major League roster in place of the injured Andrew Knizner. The Cardinals really like what Knizner brings to their team, but Herrera seems to be the much better bet long-term, especially if there continue to be concerns with Contreras behind the plate as he ages.