MLB Trends: William Contreras Finds Out Behind The Plate; why Cardinals’ Nolan Gorman breaks out

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By Webdesk


The 2023 MLB regular season is about four weeks old, but it’s still so early. Do you know how I know? Because Luis Arraez hits .444. General rule of thumb: You’re allowed to say “it’s still early” as long as someone is still getting over .400. In all seriousness, yes, it’s still early. The season is about 15% complete. There’s still plenty of baseball to be played.

Our biweekly series that breaks several trends in the league continues Wednesday with a catcher who improved his defense, a batter who adjusted his swing, and a team’s miserable DH situation. Two weeks ago we looked at a young pitcher’s new pitch, a young batter’s substitution at the plate, and a team’s unique fielding substitution.

Contreras quickly improved behind the plate

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My favorite move of the off-season was the Brewers landing William Contreras in the three-team trade that sent Sean Murphy to the Braves. Milwaukee only gave up Esteury Ruiz, a good but not exactly great prospect, to get Contreras and depth weapons Joel Payamps and Justin Yeager. Contreras, Willson’s younger brother, is under team control until 2027.

Contreras was an All-Star with Atlanta last season, hitting .278/.354/.506 with 20 home runs in 376 at bats. However, he only caught 60 games and also served as DH 34 times. Simply put, he was not a full-time catcher with the Braves. But the Brewers bought him with the idea of ​​making him their No. 1 catcher despite his poor defensive numbers last season.

Those defensive numbers have improved significantly to begin with. Here are Contreras defensive stats for the young season:

Defensive runs saved

-4

+6

Caught stealing

14%

50%

FanGraphs framing

-2.8 runs

+2.6 runs

Statcast framing

-3 runs

+1 running

Frame Baseball Prospectus

-0.9 runs

+1.0 is running

Statcast block

-3 runs

+4 runs

Contreras leads all catchers in defensive runs saved and is third in caught stealing percentage, fourth in blocking, and top six in each of the three framing stats. With the caveat that the season isn’t even a month old and defensive stats aren’t perfect, particularly at the catcher’s position, Contreras has been legitimately excellent defensively. It’s night and day compared to last season.

This is notable because the Brewers have a track record of improving catcher defenses. Omar Narváez is a good example. With the Mariners in 2019, he finished with minus 18 defensive runs saved and minus 10.4 runs in FanGraphs frames. He was terrible behind the plate. With Milwaukee in 2020, Narváez improved to plus-2 DRS and plus-3.0 FanGraphs framing in the 60-game season.

Coaches and catching gurus Nestor Corredor and Walker McKinven, and bench coach Pat Murphy, have been at the forefront of the team’s efforts to improve Contreras’ defense (and the defense of all their catchers). Among other things, they preach the one-knee catch stance, which helps frame throws at the bottom of the zone without sacrificing the ability to make fast throws.

“I’ve done it a little bit in the past, but not as consistently as this,” Contreras told MLB.com of the one-knee catching stance. “With all the new rules you have to be able to clear the ball quickly, and I’m very comfortable with where I am and good throws as well. I feel really good with my defense where I’m at right now.”

The common criticism of the one-knee catch stance is that it makes blocking fields in the sand more difficult, though Baseball America did the digging and found that it doesn’t. Catchers using the one-knee stance block the ball just as well as catchers using a traditional catching stance. Just look at Contreras’ blocking numbers. There’s a reason the one-knee pose is becoming so popular: It works.

Contreras will probably always be a bat-first player – he owns a robust .309/.390/.412 slash – but there’s room for improvement with the glove, and it looks like the Brewers are working their magic . Maybe Contreras isn’t real this defensive good. He may not be the league leader in defensive runs saved or framed, but if his glove is even average, he’s a star behind the plate.

“We thought this guy could really do anything athletically,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell told MLB.com of Contreras. “Those are the students who get the chance to get better.”

Gorman achieves increased fastballs

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Understandably, Jordan Walker has received a lot of attention early this season, both inside and outside Busch Stadium. The 20-year-old took the Cardinals out of spring training and started his career with a record-breaking hitting streak. However, Walker isn’t the only young player to impress for St. Louis. Nolan Gorman has taken over DH duties and hits a solid .393/.372/.600.

“(He) continues to make big swings for us,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol told the Associated Press of Gorman last weekend. “I mean, if you look at his home runs, it’s not just five home runs. He puts us ahead and tie the game. He makes big swings in big moments.”

Making his MLB debut last season, Gorman struggled a bit, hitting .226/.300/.420 with a 16.0% batting percentage and a 31.1% chase percentage. The MLB averages are 11.1% and 28.3%, respectively. This season, Gorman has an 11.9% batting percentage and a 22.6% chasing percentage. Those year-over-year improvements are among the largest in baseball in their respective categories.

Last year, pitchers attacked Gorman with elevated fastballs. He had a hole in his swing and you could swing him under a heater at the top of the zone. Gorman understood this and went to work in the off-season. Here’s the before and after look. Gorman isn’t popping his hips open as much this year, and his head is much quieter too.

Nolan Gorman modified his swing to better handle elevated fastballs.

MLB.com/CBS Sports

“Mechanically, the swing is flatter and that helps at the top of the zone and getting to the fastball,” Marmol told MLB.com during spring training. “It’s different from last year when he had that uphill movement where he collapsed and came up through the zone.”

Gorman is not an out of the blue success story. He is a four-time top 100 prospect and a multiple top 30 prospect. His bat has long been his calling card. That said, Gorman had a gap for pitchers to exploit, and he worked—successfully—to close that gap this winter. He is now a more dangerous hitter, and at age 23, Gorman has emerged as an important part of the long-term core in St. Louis.

“He went into the off-season to really take it in, and when you see him hit BP, he’s getting on that field now,” Marmol told MLB.com of Gorman’s adjustments. “It’s not forced and it comes with ease. To his credit he took the information, applied it and now he’s a different man.”

Seattle’s terrible, terrible, no good, very bad DH situation

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After going through the longest postseason drought in North American sports last season, the Mariners entered 2023 as a World Series contender rather than a postseason hopeful. They are currently under .500 at 11-12, but that’s OK. I mean, it’s not great, but the Mariners were still under .500 as of July 5 of last year. They have plenty of time to change course.

And to turn things around, the Mariners need to get more production out of the DH spot. Tommy La Stella, AJ Pollock and the recently demoted Cooper Hummel got the majority of DH starts early on. Predictably, the results were terrible. These are the numbers:

Sailors at DH

.110

.180

.183

1

0

MLB average at DH

.238

.325

.407

100

3

Seattle ranks 30th overall in MLB. Their DHs are last in everything. Ignoring the pre-universal DH NL teams, the Mariners currently have the worst April batting average by DH ranking since the 2002 Devil Rays (.099), who lost 106 games.

The Mariners won’t lose 106 games like those 2002 Devil Rays, but yes their DH situation is bad. And the thing is, they started planning a Hummel/La Stella platoon at DH this year. Hummel has always mashed in Triple-A, but last year he hit .176/.274/.307 with the Diamondbacks. La Stella hit .239/.282/.350 around injuries with the Giants in 2022. Really, this was plan A? Yuck.

“Ultimately you need production, right? It’s the big leagues,” Mariners manager Scott Servais told the Seattle Times last week. “…In a perfect world, you’d want your DH to be a switch hitter, a guy who hit 35 home runs and brought in 110 runs. In a perfect world, right? And those guys, there’s not a lot of them running around , and when they do, they cost a lot of money.”

Dylan Moore (oblique) and Taylor Trammell (wrist) are working their way back from injuries, though they’re not the kind of guys that will help the DH situation. Outfield prospect Cade Marlowe was activated off the injured list last week and is the team’s top option for offense in Triple-A (except for Hummel). Marlowe is 9 for 28 (.321) with four doubles and two triples since his return.

In theory, trading a DH at the deadline should be easy. The Mariners themselves did last season with Carlos Santana. The downside is that not many teams want to sell in April. The trade market is still a few weeks away from development and the Mariners will have a lot of DH battles between now and then. What you see is what you are going to get for now.

The DH spot should have been addressed in the off-season – a pack of Hummell and La Stella is one of those things that sounds good in February and terrible in April – but now there’s no turning back. No doubt the Mariners will start looking for a new DH at the deadline. Until then, they’ll just have to hope that someone — anyone — steps up and takes over.

“Some guys get more chances than others for different reasons,” Servais told the club Seattle Times. “You play matchups, you play what the expected outcomes will be based on who’s pitching and what type of pitcher hits that particular batter better than others. So there’s a lot that goes into it.”





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