The 2023 MLB regular season is roughly four weeks old but it's still so early. Know how I know that? Because Luis Arraez is hitting .444. General rule of thumb: you're allowed to say "it's still early" as long as someone is still hitting over .400. In all seriousness, yes, it is still early. The season is roughly 15% complete. Still plenty of baseball to be played.
Our bi-weekly series breaking down various trends across the league continues Wednesday with a catcher who has improved his defense, a hitter who has adjusted his swing, and one team's wretched DH situation. Two weeks ago, we looked at.
Contreras quickly improving behind the plate
Brewers landing William Contreras in the three-team trade that sent Sean Murphy to the Braves. Milwaukee gave up only Esteury Ruiz, a good but not truly great prospect, to get Contreras and depth arms Joel Payamps and Justin Yeager. Contreras, Willson's younger brother, is under team control through 2027.was the
Contreras was an All-Star with Atlanta last season, slashing .278/.354/.506 with 20 home runs in 376 plate appearances. He caught only 60 games though, and served as the DH on 34 occasions as well. Simply put, he was not a full-time catcher with the Braves. But the Brewers acquired him with the idea of making him their No. 1 catcher, even with his poor defensive numbers last season.
Those defensive numbers have improved markedly in the early going. Here are Contreras' defensive stats on the young season:
|2022 (518.2 innings caught)||2023 (150 innings caught)|
Defensive runs saved
Caught stealing rate
Baseball Prospectus framing
Contreras leads all catchers in defensive runs saved and is third in caught stealing rate, fourth in blocking, and top six in each of the three framing metrics. With the caveat that the season is not yet a month old and defensive stats are imperfect, particularly at the catcher position, Contreras has been legitimately excellent defensively. It is night and day compared to last season.
This is notable because the Brewers have a track record of improving catcher defense. Omar Narváez is a great example. With the Mariners in 2019, he finished with minus-18 defensive runs saved and minus-10.4 runs in FanGraphs framing. He was awful behind the plate. With Milwaukee in 2020, Narváez improved to plus-2 DRS and plus-3.0 FanGraphs framing in the 60-game season.
Coaches and catching gurus Nestor Corredor and Walker McKinven, and bench coach Pat Murphy, have spearheaded the team's efforts to improve Contreras' defense (and the defense of all their catchers). Among other things, they preach the one-knee catching stance, which helps with framing pitches at the bottom of the zone without sacrificing the ability to make quick throws.
"I've done it a little bit in the past, but not as consistently as this," Contreras told MLB.com about the one-knee catching stance. "With all the new rules, you have to be able to get rid of the ball quick, and I feel really comfortable with where I am with it and putting good throws behind it as well. I really feel good with my defense where I'm at right now."
The common critique of the one-knee catching stance is it makes blocking pitches in the dirt more difficult, though Baseball America did the digging, and found that's not the case. Catchers who use the one-knee stance block the ball just as well as catchers who use a traditional catching stance. Just look at Contreras' blocking numbers. There's a reason the one-knee stance is becoming so popular: it works.
Contreras will likely always be a bat-first player -- he owns a robust .309/.390/.412 slash line -- but there is room for improvement with the glove, and it appears the Brewers are working their magic. Maybe Contreras isn't truly this good defensively. He may not lead the league in defensive runs saved or framing, but if his glove is even average, he's a star behind the plate.
"The thing we thought is that athletically, this guy could do really anything," Brewers manager Craig Counsell told MLB.com about Contreras. "Those are the students who have a chance to get better."
Gorman getting to elevated fastballs
Understandably, Jordan Walker has gotten a lot of attention early this season, both inside and out of Busch Stadium. The 20-year-old made the Cardinals out of spring training and . Walker is not the only young player making an impact for St. Louis, however. Nolan Gorman has taken over DH duties and is hitting a stout .393/.372/.600.
"(He) continues to take big swings for us," Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol told the Associated Press about Gorman this past weekend. "I mean, if you look at his homers, they haven't been just homers down five. He's putting us ahead and tying up ballgames. He's taking big swings in big moments."
Gorman made his MLB debut last season and struggled a bit, slashing .226/.300/.420 with a 16.0% swinging strike rate and a 31.1% chase rate. The MLB averages are 11.1% and 28.3%, respectively. This season, Gorman is running an 11.9% swinging strike rate and a 22.6% chase rate. Those year-to-year improvements are among the largest in baseball in their respective category.
Last year, pitchers attacked Gorman with elevated fastballs. He had a hole in his swing and you could get him to swing under a heater at the top of the zone. Gorman understood this and went to work in the offseason. Here's the before and after look. Gorman does not fly open with his hips as much this year, and his head is much more still as well.
"Mechanically, the swing is flatter and that helps at the top of the zone and being able to get to the fastball that's up," Marmol told MLB.com in spring training. "It's different than last year when he kind of had that uphill move where he was collapsing and coming up through the zone."
Gorman is not an out-of-nowhere success story. He's a four-time top 100 prospect and a multiple time top 30 prospect. His bat has long been his calling card. That said, Gorman had a hole pitchers could exploit, and he worked -- successfully -- to close that hole this winter. He's a more dangerous hitter now, and, age 23, Gorman has emerged as a key part of the long-term core in St. Louis.
"He went into the offseason really wanting to address it, and when you watch him hit BP, he's getting to that pitch now," Marmol told MLB.com about Gorman's adjustments. "It's not forced and it's coming with ease. To his credit, he took the information, he applied it and he's a different guy now."
Seattle's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad DH situation
After snapping the longest postseason drought in North American sports last season, the Mariners entered 2023 as a World Series contender rather than a postseason hopeful. They're currently under .500 at 11-12 but that's OK. I mean, it's not great, but the Mariners were under .500 as late as July 5 last year. They have plenty of time to turn things around.
And to get things turned around, the Mariners must start getting more production out of the DH spot. Tommy La Stella, AJ Pollock, and the recently demoted Cooper Hummel have gotten the majority of the DH starts in the early going. Predictably, the results have been terrible. Here are the numbers:
Mariners at DH
MLB average at DH
Seattle ranks 30th in MLB across the board. Their DHs are dead last in everything. Ignoring pre-universal DH NL teams, the Mariners currently have the worst April batting average by the DH position since the 2002 Devil Rays (.099), who lost 106 games.
The Mariners won't lose 106 games like those 2002 Devil Rays but yeah, their DH situation is bad. And the thing is, they came into this year planning on a Hummel/La Stella platoon at DH. Hummel has always mashed in Triple-A but he hit .176/.274/.307 with the Diamondbacks last year. La Stella hit .239/.282/.350 around injuries with the Giants in 2022. Really, this was Plan A? Yikes.
"At the end of the day you need production, right? It's the big leagues," Mariners manager Scott Servais told the Seattle Times last week. "... In a perfect world, you'd like your DH to be a switch-hitter, a guy who hit 35 home runs and drove in 110 runs. In a perfect world, right? And those guys, there's not a lot of them running around, and if they do they cost a lot of money."
Dylan Moore (oblique) and Taylor Trammell (wrist) are working their way back from injuries, though they aren't the kind of guys who will help the DH situation. Outfield prospect Cade Marlowe was activated off the injured list last week and is the team's best option for offense in Triple-A (other than Hummel). Marlowe is 9 for 28 (.321) with four doubles and two triples since returning.
In theory, trading for a DH at the deadline should be easy. The Mariners themselves did it just last season with Carlos Santana. The downside is not many teams are looking to sell in April. The trade market is still a few weeks away from developing and the Mariners will have a lot of DH at-bats between now and then. What you see is what you're going to get for the time being.
The DH spot should have been addressed in the offseason -- a Hummell and La Stella platoon is one of those things that sounds good in February and terrible in April -- but there's no going back now. The Mariners will undoubtedly look for a new DH at the deadline. Until then, they'll have to hope someone -- anyone -- steps up and takes over the position.
"Some guys get more opportunities than others for different reasons," Servais told the Seattle Times. "You play matchups, you play what the projected outcomes are going to be based on who's pitching and what type of pitcher that particular hitter hits better than others. So there's a lot that goes into it."