The Cardinals' pitching could flourish through an unlikely source

The St. Louis Cardinals' pitching needs to improve in 2024, and Willson Contreras' new skill set could have him emerge as the team's savior.
St. Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves
St. Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves / Matthew Grimes Jr./Atlanta Braves/GettyImages

The St. Louis Cardinals treated Willson Contreras like garbage in 2023, starting by seemingly expecting him to be the next Yadier Molina, to blaming him for an inability to prepare before games, to saying he would become an outfielder. Through it all, Contreras persevered and finished the season with the highest OPS+ on the team, at 124.

Contreras may have added a new dimension to his game this year. In the offseason, he worked with his brother and a coach to improve his framing skills, and early in the 2024 season, the lessons appear to have paid off in spades. Late last season, Contreras converted to the now-popular one-knee-down position behind the plate, which helps catchers steal low strikes. After finishing in the 13th percentile in framing in 2023, Contreras has rocketed up to the 55th percentile to this point in 2024.

The Cardinals logically signed "pitching, pitching and more pitching" during the offseason in an attempt to solidify a shaky-at-best rotation, but while the new pitchers must execute the right pitches in the right locations, Contreras' newfound framing ability could be what vaults the pitching to at least a respectable status.

During the train wreck that was 2023, former Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty said that the Cardinals were throwing pitches that don't make sense, and New York Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay said that he was told that Contreras was calling for pitches that weren't in pitchers' arsenals. Now that Contreras has a year under his belt with the Cardinals, he should be more comfortable working with pitchers.

The pitchers were also jolted awake last season when they realized that without pitch-calling extraordinaire Yadier Molina, they would have to do some homework on their opponents themselves. A full season of that knowledge, combined with Contreras' strong framing ability, suggests that the pitching should markedly improve.

Contreras still wields a threatening stick as well, and though he has started off the season slow from a batting average perspective, Contreras has homered twice and hit the ball hard several times, with 3 barrels in 12 batted balls.

With a more well-rounded game, Contreras looks to be on the same path as Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt were, as both of them improved significantly in their second year with the Cardinals. Contreras should be commended for transforming a weakness into a strength, as it appeared last season that he might be better suited for a primary designated hitter role. Those concerns seem to have been quieted.

Fans shouldn't underestimate the effect on a pitching staff that a strong framer can produce, and Contreras appears to have catapulted himself into that company. It's hard to have a year fraught with more controversy than he did in 2023, but a new year looks to have given rise to a new catcher.