JUPITER, Fla. — For the cover photo that adorns this season preview section, each featured Cardinals player sported a symbol of his success. The reigning National League MVP Paul Goldschmidt gripped a bat. Ten-time Gold Glove Award winner Nolan Arenado wore his game-ready glove. And the newcomer, catcher Willson Contreras, held his mask and mitt.
The photographer asked Arenado to shift his glove a bit to reveal the gold Rawlings patch near his wrist, the patch the St. Louis company stitches on only for Gold Glove fielders. The patch caught a sparkle from the sun and rose just over Contreras’ shoulder.
The catcher raised his mitt to show its off-the-rack red Rawlings patch.
He nodded to Arenado’s gold and tapped his red.
“Soon,” he said. “Soon to have.”
The headline acquisition of the Cardinals’ offseason, Contreras arrives with a bat-first reputation to inherit a position last manned by a defensive institution: Yadier Molina, the Cardinals’ opening-day catcher since 2005. His “idol,” Contreras said.
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A Cardinals catcher has won 15 of the past 33 Gold Gloves awarded in the National League. Molina won nine. No other NL team has three different catchers with at least three Gold Gloves. It’s their standard.
Contreras knows the questions about his defense — he’s faced them, he’s asked them — and came to the Cardinals for answers on how to improve. He will not mask his aspiration.
“I think having ‘Goldy’ and Nolan, having (Brendan) Donovan, having all the Gold Gloves that we have everywhere on this team, it pushes me,” Contreras said. “I just picture myself playing with my regular team and everybody has a Gold Glove. So, I want to be one of those guys who has a gold patch on my glove.”
Contreras has a goal.
He and the Cardinals have a plan.
On one of the first official days of this spring training, Contreras huddled with Jamie Pogue, a major league assistant coach and catcher instructor, and fielding coach Jose Oquendo in the video room. The Cardinals believe Contreras’ superior arm strength and eagerness to show it will be a force as rules change to limit pickoff attempts and green-light steals. What they wanted to find were reasons for Contreras’s below-average grades for framing.
Last season he ranked 53rd among everyday catchers at framing a strike low and in the middle, converting 42.9%, per MLB’s Statcast. He was 34th in pitches low on the first base side. He ranked 25th on pitches low to the third base side. As they reviewed tape of Contreras behind the plate every season since his debut with the Cubs in 2016 and mapped the changes in how he receives pitches. They all agreed his best year was that first year. The metrics confirmed what their eyes decided.
In 2016, he was top eight in all three low areas, well above average, and on the pitches low and in the middle, he converted 53.3%.
“There are so many variables out of the catcher’s control,” Pogue said, listing pitch type and pitch execution as well as umpire tendencies. “The narrative on him, at least over the past few years, is that he’s not a great receiver. So you have that in your brain a little bit. And umpires are human. We’re going to have to reverse all that some to where he can get back to neutral or positive on the farming side. He has the physical attributes. There is no reason he should not be in the conversation for a Gold Glove while we’re here.”
Getting Contreras back to how he caught in 2016 and improving from there began this spring with a small step — setting his feet closer to home plate.
The Cardinals want Contreras to absorb the pitch, not to reach and greet it. Less of a handshake, more of a cradle. That can cause more of a collision with the ball than a catch, and because of Contreras’ arm position it sometimes rattled the mitt out of the strike zone. As Contreras tried different styles of glovework to frame pitches, he came forward with his mitt to meet the pitch and he inched back with his feet to create room and not jab into a swing path. That also gave low pitches additional distance to travel and sink from the zone before he caught them. It also might explain why his blocking for pitches that hit in front of the plate rated so low, per Baseball Savant’s data.
The Cardinals believe setting up nearer the plate will get him in better position for framing low strikes and other changes Contreras has been working on.
He said he wants his hands “quieter,” his elbow closer to his side to maintain strength and steadiness as he gloves the pitch.
Receptive, not active.
And instead of tracking the ball without much head movement, Contreras is going back to following the pitch with his eyes to the glove, almost bringing his head and shoulders to it.
“It’s like a snake,” he said. “Just think of it like a snake watching his food like with his eyes. He’s going to be like this.”
Contreras swayed his upper body and then brought his eyes and head toward his hand as it clinches to pantomime a catch.
“The pitch is my food,” he said.
Contreras compared that move to what he watched Molina do for two decades and “never changed.” Some of the drills Contreras has done this spring to turn suggestions into habits have been around even longer.
Pogue came to the Cardinals as an undrafted free agent, and he now works as a coach in the same batting cages where he first met the instructor who still inspires Cardinals catchers. The cages now are named for the late Dave Ricketts, the revered coach Molina called a father figure. Although they no longer start their mornings before the sun does, the beginning of the drills is the same. Pogue has them receive pitches barehanded, repeating what Ricketts would say about catching the pitch like “you’re catching an egg. You don’t want yolk on your face.”
Within a few days of Contreras’ finalizing the five-year, $87.5-million contract with the Cardinals, Pogue and the new catcher spent 45 minutes on the phone talking about his preferences, his openness to coaching. Contreras showed such interest in learning the Cardinals’ pitchers and getting video of them that Pogue also wrote out short personalized scouting reports that Contreras studied.
Contreras said he did a lot of his drills on his own with the Cubs. Pogue said he prefers the catchers do theirs as a group for camaraderie and competition. Contreras said with peers “the more I watch, the more I learn.”
It’s there, six days a week, where Contreras worked to adjust his glove’s starting position for certain pitches, such as sinkers. In the videos they reviewed, he had times with his thumb down and from there pushed the pitch out of the zone as he caught it. He wants his index finger up to give him range to receive, not chase, as Ricketts taught.
“One move to catch anybody anywhere,” Pogue said. “Mr. Ricketts would say, ‘Or you try to do two moves, but if you’re going to make two moves, then you’re going to make a third move — to turn around and go back and get it.’”
Pogue purposefully has not brought up Molina during drills unless Contreras asks because he did not want to spend the spring referencing how Yadi did this, Yadi did that. Yet all Cardinals catchers, from Gold Glover Tom Pagnozzi to Gold Glover Mike Matheny to Molina did these same drills. Barehand. Pitch after pitch from the machine. Blocking. What Ricketts started, golden catchers influenced, Molina proselytized and popularized, and Pogue continues are all now pouring into Contreras.
Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol called the new catcher enthusiastically receptive “even to the drills that are not overly exciting and monotonous.” It is what Marmol, Pogue, and Contreras discussed in the manager’s office that first week of camp. The Cardinals had suggestions for ways Contreras could improve. He brought up that one thing he’s “missing is a Gold Glove.” They discussed, drill by drill and data by data, if that was possible.
“That’s where we landed,” Marmol said.
“Right now, I can tell you I’m in a better spot,” Contreras said. “My confidence is getting higher. If you have confidence in something, you talk about it, and you put it out there in the world and it’s going to come to you. That’s what I believe. It’s the same way I talk about the World Series — how bad we want to win the World Series, how bad the city of St. Louis wants us to get back to the World Series. So, I think I have to do the same thing about the Gold Glove. The team is most important, but if I am better, it’s going to help the team.
“Thinking about the Gold Glove, getting the Gold Glove,” Contreras concluded, “is going to help me, overall, get my defense to a different level.”
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