Brewers' William Contreras staking his claim as one of the best catchers in MLB

As a new era of Milwaukee baseball begins, the 26-year-old is continuing to improve and impress on both offense and defense

It was a little too on the nose.

There was Corbin Burnes, facing his former team for the first time since he was shipped to Baltimore in a blockbuster trade this past February. His first opponent was William Contreras, batting leadoff on Sunday for just the third time in his young career. It took all of two pitches for Contreras to affirm his status as one of the new faces of Brewers baseball as the organization settles into the post-Burnes era. Then a 96 mph cutter from the 2021 NL Cy Young winner was blasted over the center-field wall at Camden Yards for Contreras’ fourth home run of the season.

It was the latest sweet swing amid a spectacular start to 2024 for the 26-year-old catcher, whose 195 wRC+ currently ranks top-12 among qualified hitters and, unsurprisingly, first among his positional peers. And he’s not just a good hitter for a catcher. Contreras ranks as one of the best all-around players in baseball, with his 6.6 fWAR since the start of last season — his first in Milwaukee — tied for ninth among big-league position players.

Since arriving from Atlanta in the December 2022 trade that landed the Braves another star catcher in Sean Murphy from Oakland, Contreras has rapidly ascended the hierarchy of big-league backstops. And while he can feel good about where he is now, being traded by the only organization he’d ever known was difficult, regardless of the opportunity it represented.

“It was hard at first,” Contreras told Yahoo Sports through interpreter and assistant coach Daniel de Mondesert. “But then once I got to spring training and got to know my teammates, I felt extremely comfortable, and I was happy to be here.”

'I'll put him up against any catcher in the big leagues'

Long known as the younger brother of three-time All-Star Willson Contreras, William’s prospect status grew as he climbed the minor-league ladder with Atlanta. After intermittent playing time in 2020 and 2021, he broke out in a big way in 2022, with his first All-Star season as a part-time catcher for the Braves alongside Travis d’Arnaud.

That winter, the opportunity to land a more established catcher in Murphy, one with a Gold Glove Award already on his résumé, proved too enticing for Atlanta’s front office to pass up — even at the cost of Contreras. It’s not that Atlanta didn’t believe Contreras could become a more complete player at the game’s most demanding position. But with the veteran d’Arnaud in the fold, there simply weren’t going to be enough opportunities for Contreras to get the reps necessary to become an every-day catcher. Instead, he was used by Atlanta as a valuable trade chip, one that has since become an invaluable piece of Milwaukee’s roster.

“Now I feel like I'm showing the best version of myself out here,” Contreras said, “so it's fun to be here with this group.”

One familiar face upon his arrival with the new club was right-hander Bryse Wilson, a former teammate in Atlanta. Contreras, who happens to be just four days younger than Wilson, caught the pitcher’s second pro start in 2016, when the two were 18-year-old prospects in the Gulf Coast League. Now reunited in Milwaukee, Wilson isn’t particularly shocked that Contreras has developed to this degree; he saw glimpses of greatness at several levels in Atlanta’s minor-league system.

“It's awesome to see his growth and how he’s essentially become more of a staple as a top catcher in the league,” Wilson said. “You knew that eventually he was gonna turn the corner and become one of the best. I'll put him up against any catcher in the big leagues any day of the week, both offensively and defensively.”

William Contreras headshot
William Contreras
C - MIL - #24
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Contreras has made a similar impression on those who have known him for far less time. “He's entered that conversation,” Rhys Hoskins said of Contreras’ case as one of baseball’s best catchers. “He's firmly in it.”

As a member of the Phillies, Hoskins witnessed the early stages of Contreras’ big-league career with the NL East-rival Braves. “I didn't like playing against him, to be honest,” Hoskins said. “He's got a level of confidence that can rub any opponent the wrong way. But being on the same side as him … it’s as much talent as you can ask for from a catching perspective. As a competitive athlete who has all the talent in the world but is also willing to look under the hood and say, ‘How do I become the best?’ — it's easy to root for, and I'm glad he's on my side now.”

That drive to improve every aspect of his game is something Contreras’ teammates and coaches have noticed. Granted the chance to prove himself as an every-day player — Contreras racked up more plate appearances in 2023 with Milwaukee (611) than in the previous three seasons with Atlanta combined (571) — he has developed exponentially as a hitter and as a defender since becoming a Brewer.

“I can see, even in just my couple months here, his baseball IQ is refining with experience,” Hoskins said.

"He's obviously become a really good player,” said Christian Yelich, the longest-tenured Brewer. “I think he's one of the top catchers in the sport, for sure. [He’s] a strong kid, and I think that my biggest impression is that he can really, really hit.”

'Hell or high water, he's going to hit'

Those around the Brewers regularly marvel at how Contreras’ raw strength manifests in home runs to parts of the ballpark rarely visited by right-handed hitters, whether it’s the shot to dead-center off Burnes on Sunday or the blast to straightaway right field on Friday in Baltimore. But while there are a fair number of catchers with muscular builds like Contreras’ who boast impressive raw power, it’s far more rare to find one who can get to that juice in games while running a below-average strikeout rate.

This is another part of Contreras’ game that has improved since he became a Brewer, as he has upped his overall contact rate and slashed his strikeout rate from 28.4% as a Brave to 20.7% with Milwaukee, all while maintaining a walk rate above 10%. Putting more balls in play then enables his freakish strength to translate to more overall production.

And the key to his continued success at the plate against the best arms in the world? “Staying calm and being a student of the game,” Contreras said. “Studying the pitchers and, you know, doing my own adjustments, both in-game and postgame.”

Brewers hitting coach Connor Dawson sees this as one of Contreras' biggest strengths. While most hitters stick to one stance or swing to ensure consistent success, Contreras demonstrates a unique malleability in the batter’s box that benefits him from at-bat to at-bat. He’s not afraid to tweak his setup, tone down his leg kick or alter his toe-tap depending on the situation. And beyond the subtle changes to his physical presence and the ways he uncorks his powerful, right-handed swing, Contreras has demonstrated an innate ability to process how pitchers are attacking him and respond accordingly.

“What I've learned about William through the last year is he'd become more and more matchup-proof,” Dawson said. “It's the adaptability, and it's not just the swing. It's the mindset and the way he goes about pitchers. He can adapt to any situation, different pitches, different pitch types, whether a guy is quick to the dish. He has so many solutions built in that he can find a way to figure out the solution on the spot.”

As Contreras takes on more responsibility atop the lineup as an every-day player — in addition to his older brother, he names Yadier Molina and Salvador Perez, two noted ironmen, as his favorite catchers growing up — it’s crucial for him to make adjustments on a daily basis to ensure a consistent level of production.

“It doesn't matter who is on the mound, William is going to find a way to hit,” Dawson said. “Hell or high water, he's going to hit. And not only does he do that as a pure hitter, but he's doing that as a catcher, which makes him even more special. It's super impressive.”

William Contreras has proven himself to be a key piece for the Brewers on both offense and defense. (Photo by Ben Jackson/Getty Images)
William Contreras has proven himself to be a key piece for the Brewers on both offense and defense. (Photo by Ben Jackson/Getty Images)

'William was the architect behind it'

The Brewers knew they were getting a gifted hitter when they acquired Contreras. But given the organization's track record of elevating catchers’ defensive skills, Milwaukee was also an ideal environment for Contreras’ all-around game to blossom. Both his framing and his blocking metrics took significant steps forward in 2023, and beyond the physical components that are more easily measured, Contreras has also started to master the nuances of the position, including calling pitches and understanding how a pitcher’s repertoire is working on a game-to-game basis.

"This guy's got instincts for the game,” Brewers manager Pat Murphy said. “Last year, he committed to being a defensive catcher. And once he did that, he started to show signs. You can't just jump into it and be good at it.”

The advancement of Contreras’ defensive aptitude was on display in a recent game in Cincinnati in which righty Joe Ross made his second start of 2024 after two injury-riddled seasons drastically limited his time on the mound. Ross struck out seven across 6⅓ innings, his longest start since August 2021, in Milwaukee’s 9-5 victory.

Following the win, Murphy lauded Contreras for his ability to help Ross navigate the Reds’ lineup and guide his pitch selection based on how hitters were reacting, especially considering how little the pair had worked together before.

“Give William a ton of credit because he dissected what Joe was tonight and just went with it,” Murphy said last week. “Joe early was behind in the count and getting away with some things, and William kind of dissected it and put it together. I give him as much credit as I do Joe. Just spectacular. …

“He started to realize what was effective, and then he matched what he knew Joe could do with the hitters’ strengths and weaknesses. It's like art — it's just wow. You can see the hitter going, ‘Ah, I wasn’t ready for that’ or ‘I was looking for something else,’ and it's a beautiful thing. And William was the architect behind it.”

So far this season, Contreras has made a “quantum leap” with his game-calling and defensive preparedness, according to Murphy. “This year, he came with an idea of what he wanted to do, and he has a really good feel. We don't call any pitches. He calls 'em all.”

For the Brewers as a whole, it was tough to know what to expect in 2024 Brewers. Only three teams returned a smaller percentage of innings and plate appearances from 2023, and 11 of the 26 players on Milwaukee’s Game 1 squad were making their first Opening Day roster. Yet even with so many unknowns, early returns have been positive: At 10-4, Milwaukee has yet to lose a series and boasts the second-best run differential in MLB, at +31. No matter how the season shakes out, it’s a safe bet that Contreras will be at the center of it all — at the top of the lineup making an impact offensively and behind the dish as a rapidly improving field general.

Hoskins, a longtime teammate of J.T. Realmuto, knows how valuable it is to have a catcher who can impact the game on both sides of the ball. “When you know you have a stud back there,” he said, “it just gives everybody else a little bit of extra confidence.”