William Contreras, Jeff Mathis filling Braves’ catching void

Washington Nationals' Josh Harrison (5) runs to home and score while Braves catcher Jeff Mathis watches a single hit by Nationals' Yan Gomes during the eighth inning Thursday, May 6, 2021, in Washington. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
Caption
Washington Nationals' Josh Harrison (5) runs to home and score while Braves catcher Jeff Mathis watches a single hit by Nationals' Yan Gomes during the eighth inning Thursday, May 6, 2021, in Washington. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta

Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta

Braves catcher Jeff Mathis wasn’t sure how his 2021 season would look. The team signed him to a minor-league contract at the end of March to bolster its organizational depth. Mathis, 38, was just happy for a chance to continue playing.

Now, as of May 10, Mathis is one of two catchers on the major-league roster. Travis d’Arnaud suffered a thumb injury, underwent surgery and is out at least two months. Alex Jackson, his backup, is out with a hamstring strain.

The Braves’ solution was young and old. William Contreras, their 23-year-old star catching prospect, and Mathis, a veteran journeyman nearing the end of his career, comprise the team’s new backstop combo.

“I didn’t really know what this year was going to entail, but I’m thankful for the opportunity,” Mathis said. “Never exciting when teammates go down, with Travis and Alex, but I’m thankful I was in the position here and able to get another opportunity.”

The Braves are thankful, too, that they had a 17-year veteran available. Mathis is well-traveled over that time, playing for the Angels (2005-11), Blue Jays (2012), Marlins (2013-16), Diamondbacks (2017-18) and Rangers (2019-20).

Braves catching coach Sal Fasano had immediate trust in Mathis.

““He’s a true, true pro,” Fasano told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “There’s a reason people love having him around. Just being around him for the few weeks we’ve been, you can see why guys gravitate to him. He has good, quiet leadership qualities. For me it’s great because we can be a sounding board. We use the line all the time, ‘iron sharpens iron.’ So all our catchers, even Travis who’s in here the other day talking about what we’re trying to do with the game plan and how to handle pitchers. But all three of those guys are working together as one unit, which is awesome to see.”

Mathis’ presence greatly benefits Contreras, who’s learning the intricacies of catching. Contreras possesses legitimate offensive ability, but his defense is still developing, as the team saw over the weekend when he committed multiple errors.

Braves pitcher Huascar Ynoa (right) speaks with pitching coach Rick Kranitz (39) and catcher William Contreras during the first inning against the Philadelphia Phillies Sunday, May 9, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Ben Margot/AP)
Caption
Braves pitcher Huascar Ynoa (right) speaks with pitching coach Rick Kranitz (39) and catcher William Contreras during the first inning against the Philadelphia Phillies Sunday, May 9, 2021, at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Ben Margot/AP)

Credit: Ben Margot

Credit: Ben Margot

Contreras might be the Braves’ long-term answer at the position. If he’s going to become such, this time is vital. He’ll be carrying the load over the next two-plus months. Learning from a mind like Mathis’, along with d’Arnaud, who’s remained involved with game planning, is invaluable.

“I’ve been impressed,” Mathis said of Contreras. “Very athletic. Everything I was hearing, I’m seeing. Really good at-bats and handling the staff, too, which is obviously important. I’ve been very impressed with him.”

The Braves have more assistance on the way. They re-signed Tyler Flowers, who caught for them across the past five seasons and should rejoin the club as early as next month. Flowers, 35, is familiar with Contreras, having worked with him at spring training over the past few years.

Flowers adds more experienced depth. With Contreras soaking up knowledge from d’Arnaud, Mathis and Flowers, Fasano likes where the team’s catching situation stands.

“Basically, in my position, I want to surround myself with great people with good work ethic,” Fasano said. “If you do that, everybody starts to take that same persona, working hard and trying to help each other out. There’s no selfishness. We’re selfish for the Braves, that’s it. We just want to win. Tyler was a great example of someone who’s a pitch stealer, then when we got here, the whole new regime, he bought into everything we were doing. He understands the transition and the process. He’ll definitely help. I have an embarrassment of riches with Mathis, d’Arnaud and Flowers sitting around William Contreras.”