The Braves need to proceed cautiously with their young catcher.
“The Braves need to get William Contreras’ bat in the lineup at all cost” is common reply in my Twitter mentions these days. Essentially, ever since the Braves young catcher bust onto the scene this season hitting like Mike Trout, the call to get him in the lineup as much as possible no matter what has gotten louder and louder and louder. Put him at catcher more, put him in LF, put him in RF, put him at DH, maybe he can learn to play 3B or 1B, whatever it takes, get his bat in the lineup. And, in theory, that sounds like a good idea. The truth, however, is that’s probably not the wisest path forward.
Being a major league catcher is an exhausting job, easily the most physically demanding position you can play in the sport. Between the all the gear, the heat of summer, nine innings of squatting, the foul balls of your body, stopping wild pitches with any part of you, or sometimes even getting whacked in the back of the head with a bat on a follow through, it’s a punishing job. So much so, that the trend around the league the last few years is to have a two guys split the responsibilities so both guys can make it through a long season. Or as manager Brian Snitker has said a couple of times this season “It’s really a two-man position now.”
The Braves entered the season with Travis d’Arnuad and Manny Pina as their two man catching tandem, with William Contreras in AAA as insurance and Shea Langeliers off to Oakland in the Matt Olson trade. Having three solid guys like Travis, Pina, and Contreras was honestly as much depth as you can hope to have at a position where depth is scarce, as Braves’ fan learned painfully in 2021. Unfortunately for the team, that depth didn’t last very long. On April 28th, the Braves placed Pina on the IL with left wrist inflammation and by May 11th, that IL stint had turned into season-ending wrist surgery. Before a month of the season was complete, the Braves impressive catching depth had been cut by 33%.
One way to look at it is, well, that’s why you have depth at a position, so if a major injury comes along, the next guy can step in and not miss a beat. And that’s exactly what’s happened with Contreras, as he’s come up and preformed at a level even the most optimistic of his supporters wouldn’t have thought possible. Through 22 games, Contreras has 183 WRC+ with a .378 OBP% and a .667 SLG% to go along with vastly improved defensive abilities. His manager and fellow pitchers have raved about his game-calling skills and ability to handle a full major league staff. Add that to all world offensive numbers and, in a word, he’s been absurd. This is why the calls to get him in the lineup any way possible are so loud.
But the other way to look at is, once that depth has been called upon, there’s no more depth behind it to lean on anymore. The Braves are one injury to Contreras or d’Arnaud away from handing serious innings over to Chadwick Tromp or Ryan Casteel. Or having to go out on the free agent market and pull someone off the street. I’m sure Kevan Smith or Jeff Mathis are available. Anyone who had the displeasure of watching how last season’s catching situation played out knows, once it gets to that point, all the options are bad ones.
So while conventional wisdom says, he’s one of the best hitters on the team, get him in there any way you can, that’s really not the smart way to approach it. He’s one of two guys in the entire organization who you can comfortably hand any catching responsibilities, and after him, it’s a 10-story drop off to the next viable option. Trying to be ultra-creative in how you use him made sense when was the third guy on the depth chart. The whole utility player thing from earlier year, while weird to me, was at least sensible in the fact that he wasn’t needed at catcher. That’s not the case anymore. Enough with putting him in the outfield, where he’s clearly not comfortable or familiar. You’re just asking for an injury. Forget any notion of teaching him new positions to increase his versatility and open up new ways of getting him in the lineup. He’s a catcher and he’s a DH. That should be it.
And really, he’s not even the back-up catcher. Between the heat of Atlanta summers, the physical toll of the position, and the extensive injury history of Travis d’Arnaud, Contreras should be viewed as a starter. The Braves have two starting catchers. As they should. And between that and one or two games a week at DH, that’s enough. That’s plenty.
I get why people want to see him more. I get why my Twitter mentions are filled up every day with arguments for more and more and more playing time. It’s incredibly fun to watch him hit. And let’s be honest, the team hasn’t exactly been on fire most of the year and his production has been very much needed whenever available. But he’s the other starting catcher now. A vital role with little to no depth behind him. Managing his and d’Arnaud’s workload is now a critical component for getting through the season. We’re to the point now where the mindset needs to shift from playing him at all cost to protecting him at all cost.