The St. Louis Cardinals enter the second game of their home series against the Tigers in a state of cascading misery. They're a National League worst 10-23 at this writing, have lost seven in a row, and have dropped the opening game of all 11 series they've played in 2023. Coming off a 93-win season and a division title in 2022, all of that is more alarming than it sounds, and -- to be clear -- it sounds alarming in any context.
Growing out of this is what seems to be mutual frustrations between catcher Willson Contreras, the team's headline free-agent addition this past winter, and the team's manager, front office, and perhaps even pitching staff. Contreras, ankle deep into a five-year, $87.5 million pact with the Cardinals, has mostly delivered at the plate thus far in 2023, and he's also thrived at controlling the running game.
Even so, Contreras has started at catcher in just 23 of the team's 33 games, and he's increasingly seen DH duty. In a presumably related matter, the Cardinals on Saturday added a third catcher to the active roster when they called up Tres Barrera. That led to this:
Willson Contreras says he’s healthy and able to catch. Said his DHing is a “manager or front office decision.” He also said he was surprised to see Barrera called up but he’s excited for him, as a player.— Jeff Jones (@jmjones) May 6, 2023
Contreras tweaked his ankle sliding into third base during Friday night's eventual loss to Detroit, which may in part explain the current state of things. However, it's not hard to read frustration into Contreras' words. A large part of Contreras' value is that his bat is so special by the positional standards of catchers. As a DH, his bat becomes more ordinary because the offensive bar for adequacy as a DH is so much lower than it is for catcher, the most demanding of positions. As well, current backup catcher Andrew Knizner simply cannot hit major-league pitching at acceptable levels (career of 62 and a slash line of .156/.206/.250 this season). Barrera, career OPS+ of 79, doesn't figure to be much better. DHing Contreras necessarily forces into the lineup such a thoroughly lacking bat, and adding to the roster a backup to the backup suggests more of that is in the offing.
Actually, more of that plus significant time in the outfield is in the offing:
Obviously, if Contreras' ankle were an issue, he wouldn't be asked to patrol the outfield grass. He's done so in the past, albeit in limited doses. For his career, he's logged 236 defensive innings at the outfield corners, with most of that coming in left. St. Louis this season has struggled to get good production from left, and compounding matters is that Tyler O'Neill is currently on the injured list with a lower back strain.
So, yes, there's need, but there's cause to believe that Contreras' defensive faculties -- or at least internal perceptions of them -- may also be playing a role. Right now, Statcast rates Contreras as a below-average pitch-framer this season (35th percentile and trending downward in recent games). As well, the struggles of Cardinal pitchers this season when in two-strike counts (they've managed to allow 20 two-strike home runs already in 2023) and the fact that they've fared better with Knizner as the battery mate, at least from an ERA standpoint, aren't helping.
Speaking of which, right-hander Jack Flaherty following his most recent start in which he hemorrhaged 10 earned runs in 2 1/3 innings against an Angels lineup that didn't have Mike Trout in it, said this (via Derrick Goold):
"Two-strike hits, whatever that comes down to. Whatever the hell we're doing as a staff is pretty bad. Way too many two-strike hits today. It was like 2-1 hit, bad count, falling behind. Even if we fell behind, got back in the count, made pitches to get to two strikes then had too many balls hit hard. That's frustrating, throughout our whole staff — throwing pitches that don't make sense."
Emphasis added. While Flaherty went on to cite his own inability to execute, the highlighted portion of the quote above certainly implies that he's displeased with pitch selection. If current frustrations from Cardinals fans are any guide -- not to wander into that particular cornucopia -- then Contreras is proving to be the most frequently cited culprit for the team's mound failures in putaway spots. Contreras is probably acutely aware of this, which may be why he also said this on Saturday:
#STLCards C Willson Contreras on talking to Yadier Molina: “(Molina) said he was watching the games and he said that we're not executing pitches. I'm not blaming anybody. I'm not pointing fingers at my pitchers because I'm on their side. But we just need to be better executing.”— John Denton (@JohnDenton555) May 6, 2023
Molina, of course, is the recently retired franchise catching legend and a likely future Hall of Famer, and marshaling his words as evidence for your case is indeed a powerful approach within the organization. It can also, however, be seen as a bit of a provocation or perhaps a somewhat withering response to Flaherty's own "bit of a provocation." However you characterize it, all of it suggests a rift among roles -- pitcher and catcher -- that can't afford such a thing.
Of course, pitchers are free to shake off the catcher, and from the outside it's impossible to know to what extent pitch mix and sequencing are scouting-report-driven or even suggested by the dugout or baseball-ops analysts. In addition to a new primary catcher, the Cardinals are also adjusting to a new pitching coach in Dusty Blake, who has been charged with improving the staff's abilities to miss bats and get strikeouts. It takes a while to adapt to all that newness, and the team's uncharacteristically awful start to the season doesn't aid such efforts.
For his part, manager Oli Marmol attempt to head off the perception that this is all a scape-goating of Contreras. Via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Lynn Worthy, Marmol said Saturday:
"I want to be super clear. We're not losing ballgames because Willson Contreras is behind the plate. I want to be super clear on that. This is a guy that's putting in an amazing amount of work to be able to become more familiar with, one, our pitchers, but also how we do things."
Maybe it's premature to call all of this dysfunction, and maybe it all vaporizes once the Cardinals find a higher level in general. For now, however, it's a troubling bit of discord within a team that can't afford any of that right now.