When the St. Louis Cardinals signed Willson Contreras last offseason, they knew they were getting a potent offensive player. His defensive shortcomings were something the Cardinals were willing to sacrifice.
Contreras delivered on his offensive promises last year. He finished the season with a 124 wRC+, second only to Adley Rutschman of the Baltimore Orioles among qualified catchers. Contreras's game calling, however, was not as strong as the team was expecting, especially after having Yadier Molina behind the plate for nearly two decades prior to Contreras.
Molina's presence figures to give Contreras a boost defensively, but Willson is taking matters into his own hands as well. He has been working with his brother William of the Milwaukee Brewers and catching coach Carlos Munoz to improve his framing abilities this offseason.
Framing pitches is a bit of an art. The goal is to deceive the eye of the umpire to make him think the pitch was a strike when in reality it was a borderline pitch. Some catchers are great at this such as Sean Murphy, Austin Hedges, and Jonah Heim. Among all catchers last year, Contreras ranked 55th in catcher framing runs according to Baseball Savant with a -5 score.
The area where Contreras struggled the most with last year as a framer was with low pitches. He got strikes at an above-average rate on high pitches last year, but both the middle and all three lower zones in the strike zone were below average for him in regard to framing. The key to stealing low strikes is starting the glove way down in the zone and then "sweeping" it up to meet the ball. If a catcher starts with the glove in the zone and then has to move it down, an umpire is less likely to be fooled due to the extreme movement on the part of the catcher. Jimmy O'Brien of Jomboy Media did a fantastic breakdown on this recently.
Contreras has always had a strong arm in his career, and up until last year, he was great at blocking pitches in the dirt. If he can work on improving his framing while maintaining his offensive output and his blocking/stealing prevention, the St. Louis Cardinals may have an All-Star catcher on their roster yet again. Ivan Herrera's showing during the Caribbean Series could give the St. Louis Cardinals the most potent catching duo in baseball next year as well.