When the Brewers acquired William Contreras, Joel Payamps, and Justin Yeager for Esteury Ruiz as part of a three-team trade with the Atlanta Braves and Oakland Athletics, the initial reaction across baseball was that Milwaukee made out exceptionally well on its side of the deal.
Fast forward a few months, and the trade has played out as well as the Brewers could have hoped. Payamps has emerged as a reliable setup arm in front of Devin Williams, and Contreras’ 2.7 fWAR ranks third in the sport among qualified catchers.
Contreras has been the second-best player on the roster behind Christian Yelich, and he delivered another crucial performance when he went three-for-five in Wednesday night’s 5-3 win over the Phillies. He drove in the winning run and an insurance run with doubles in the seventh and ninth innings.
The 25-year-old’s defensive turnaround has been well-documented. Contreras has joined the growing list of backstops to flip their defensive reputation in Milwaukee. According to Baseball Prospectus’ Catching Defense Added metric, he finished the 2022 season with -2.3 runs added. This season, he is fourth among all catchers with 7.5 runs added.
Contreras has also evolved at the plate, but his offensive output this season may not immediately reveal his growth as a hitter. His 119 wRC+ is nearly 20 points below the robust 138 mark he posted in 2022.
Contreras hit .278/.354/.506 last season, belting 20 home runs in just 376 plate appearances while earning an All-Star selection with his strong work at the plate.
After such a performance, Milwaukee’s new catcher could have sat on his laurels. Instead, he and the Brewers seemingly went to work identifying the flaws in his game and reshaping his offensive profile for the better.
There were reasons to be skeptical of Contreras’ All-Star output with the Braves. That and his shortcomings behind the plate contributed to Atlanta’s willingness to part with a controllable young backstop to acquire fellow All-Star Sean Murphy.
Contreras’ .347 xwOBA was much lower than his actual wOBA of .370. His solid batting average was partially the product of an above-average .344 BABIP. Contreras did not hit many line drives, had one of the highest ground ball rates in the game, and is not a fast runner. A repeat of such favorable outcomes on batted balls was unlikely.
Furthermore, Contreras struggled to make consistent contact. He struck out at a 27.7% rate, and his 34.4% whiff rate ranked in the sixth percentile of hitters.
The gaudy power output appeared fluky as well. Contreras hits the ball with authority but rode a 27% home run to fly ball ratio to his high homer total. The league average ratio in 2022 was 11.4%.
Contreras’ fly balls were clearing the fence at an unsustainable rate. The inevitable drop coming for his power numbers combined with his swing-and-miss tendencies presented a recipe for trouble.
As expected, Conteras’ home run to fly ball ratio regressed to the mean and sits at 16.7% this year. With 10 home runs in 317 plate appearances, he is leaving the yard at just over half the rate he did last season. His BABIP has also decreased to .318.
Despite these trends, Contreras’ offensive production has not cratered because he has refined his approach to become a more balanced hitter.
Most notably, he has dramatically reduced the frequency of his swing and misses. Contreras’ strikeout rate is down to 19.2% this year, lower than the MLB average. His whiff rate has improved to a more manageable 26.3%, placing him in the 41st percentile.
Observe this clip from 2022 of Contreras whiffing on an elevated fastball.
Now compare it to this high cutter he lined into right-center last week.
In the former clip, Contreras starts his stance in a more closed position and opens up early in his swing, pulling off the ball entirely.
In the latter example, Contreras simplified his stance by making it square with the pitcher while standing slightly more upright. He does not open up early and puts a more controlled swing on the ball, allowing him to shoot it up the middle.
While not a major mechanical adjustment, the change in Contreras’ setup and mindset has made a difference. Using the opposite field more has been a theme for the backstop, who is going to right field with 27.8% of his batted balls this year, up from 22% last season.
Staying on the ball longer has led to marked improvement against breaking pitches. Contreras is hitting .252 with a .331 wOBA against such pitches after struggling to a .229 average and .260 wOBA last season. He has slashed his whiff rate against breaking balls from 43% to 25.1%.
The new approach has not come at a notable cost to his quality of contact. Contreras’ barrel rate has decreased from 13.4% to 9.3%, but his 90.9 mph average exit velocity and 48.6% hard hit rate align with last season’s marks.
Contreras’ .350 xwOBA this season is a near-perfect match for his 2022 season. This time, he’s getting to that production in a more well-rounded fashion.
Contreras still has plenty of room—and time—to grow. His 55.1% ground ball rate remains exceptionally high. Still, by closing some of the holes in his offensive game, Contreras has put himself in a better position to experience sustained success at the plate. The more well-rounded version of the Brewers’ backstop has emerged as one of the best catchers in the National League.