William Contreras’ breakout season for Braves shouldn’t go underappreciated

William Contreras is somewhat of an enigma. He’s an All-Star, but he’s a backup. He’s a catcher, but he’s a designated hitter. What it ultimately means: He’s an invaluable contributor for the Braves, a delightful surprise in a season with many.

Contreras has flown somewhat under the radar despite his former lofty prospect status, name recognition – his brother Willson is an All-Star backstop for the Cubs – and being a starter in the All-Star game.

There are logical explanations. Contreras is Travis d’Arnaud’s backup. Despite being 24 years old, he’s practically a veteran compared with some of his hot-shot peers. One isn’t considered too young at 24 in the Braves clubhouse, where the 21-year-old spectacular player feels regular. If Contreras was on a different team, perhaps he’d garner more attention.

“You’re getting a Hall of Fame year out of that position this year with the production,” manager Brian Snitker said of his catching tandem. “It’s great for William (to work with d’Arnaud). They’re in this thing together. I know Travis looks after him. I’m sure William has picked his brain and looks up to him, as he should. It’s been nice to see his development.”

Contreras’ individual season shouldn’t be overlooked. He’s had a splendid breakout campaign. One year after falling on his face during an extended audition, Contreras has solidified himself as a core piece of his talented team.

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Contreras has produced a 2.3 bWAR. He’s hit .278 with an .868 OPS over 83 games. He’s played 54 games at catcher and 26 as the designated hitter, and he even manned left field once in May. Through it all, the Braves learned they’re a better team with Contreras in their lineup.

“There aren’t a lot of guys who’re technically the backup catcher who are as prepared as he is,” first baseman Matt Olson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Every time he gets an at-bat, he’s putting a barrel on it. Obviously an All-Star, so I use that ‘backup’ term very lightly. He’s in the middle of the lineup, a big bat in the lineup whenever he’s in there. He’s been really impressive. He’s got crazy juice along with the ability to shorten up and put the barrel on it.”

Outfielder Ronald Acuna added (via team interpreter Franco Garcia): “His maturity, that’s where he’s developed most. We’re both Venezuelan players, so we talk a lot amongst one another, and I think we offer each other advice mutually. So just to see his maturation and growth throughout this process has been really good.”

Contreras’ season is even more impressive with context. When d’Arnaud suffered a serious injury last season, Contreras took over. He wasn’t ready, flailing to the point the Braves sent him back to Triple-A Gwinnett and turned their attention to journeymen as stopgaps until d’Arnaud returned.

It left Contreras’ future in a gray area, especially after the Braves signed veteran Manny Pina to a two-year deal as d’Arnaud’s backup. That was a clear signal the team didn’t view Contreras as a capable backup entering 2022.

Some thought Contreras could be trade bait. Shea Langeliers was considered the future. But he became the present – as a headliner in the Olson trade. While Contreras wasn’t written off, Braves fans were banking on Langeliers for life after the 33-year-old d’Arnaud. Contreras was considered an inferior prospect.

Yet Contreras unexpectedly earned another opportunity when Pina required season-ending wrist surgery in early May. He’s taken it and run, looking nothing like the struggling youngster from a year ago. Contreras’ defense – a common criticism – has appeared much improved. His bat has proved worth the previous hype.

That’s how one earns an All-Star appearance as a part-time player.

“Calmness, confidence, experience; I think a year ago, I went out with a different attitude. Now, I’m going out there trying to enjoy myself,” Contreras said via Garcia. “I’m having fun. It’s totally different.”

As for how the regular at-bats have helped him: “It’s like trying to start a car that hasn’t run for a while,” Contreras said. “It’s going to cut out on you. Playing consistently helps you get your timing down. For me, that’s the big thing.”

Other MLB clubs envy the Braves’ catching situation. D’Arnaud owns an .811 OPS, which means the Braves can become the seventh team with two primary catchers posting an .800 or better OPS (minimum 300 plate appearances). They’ve produced two of those six seasons, including one recently with Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki in 2017.

The Suzuki-Flowers pairing combined for 29 doubles, 31 home runs and 99 RBIs that season. D’Arnaud and Contreras have 33 doubles, 37 homers and 97 RBIs with 14 games remaining. Unlike that earlier pairing, this one features a youngster who’s presumably only going to get better.

For as valuable as d’Arnaud has been to Contreras, the veteran feels Contreras has helped him, too. “The energy he brings every day inspires me and helps me feel young,” d’Arnaud said. “I don’t know if I’d be having as good of a year if he wasn’t with me.”

That’s glowing praise from d’Arnaud, who earned his first All-Star appearance this summer as well. D’Arnaud raves about Contreras’ game-planning improves, noting how much Braves pitchers enjoy collaborating with him.

“When I was that age, I didn’t have a veteran, so I’m just trying to do what I feel like should’ve been done for me,” d’Arnaud told The AJC regarding mentoring Contreras. “Just be there for him. Any question he has, any little thing I say, any piece of advice that pops in my head in any situation. I just try to let him know what I’m thinking and he lets me know what he’s thinking so we can talk it out. That’s the best way to learn.”

D’Arnaud continued, stressing how rare Contreras’ athleticism and physical build is for a catcher. “Have you seen his calves? I know J.T. Realmuto has huge calves, but I want to see them side by side and measured out. Him and his brother are crazy athletic and strong. Super flexibility, too. Great baseball I.Q. I’m really happy I’m on his team.”

As the postseason approaches, Contreras has upped his play. He’s hit .313 with 12 extra-base hits, 19 RBIs and 21 runs in his last 34 games entering Tuesday. Among players with fewer than 325 plate appearances, Contreras is tied with future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols with 19 homers.

Contreras is going to be a crucial part of the team’s makeup this October, especially with Ronald Acuna back in the outfield and Vaughn Grissom manning second base (opposed to being a depth player with Ozzie Albies healthy).

“To be able to put together the at-bats that he has, and to see the evolution he’s made, it’s been unbelievable,” ace starting pitcher Max Fried said. “He’s definitely making strides behind the plate, too. But speaking on his bat, every time he gets up there, he’s bound to do damage or something good will happen.”

And his emergence shouldn’t go underappreciated. Contreras, be it at catcher, DH or wherever else, is here to stay.

“It’s just been something else to watch all year,” Snitker said. “Just how he’s maturing with playing time. His catching, the game-calling and all that. It’s been really cool to see. He’s been a big part of what we have going on.”