There is a dramatic difference between the catchers we are likely to see in London on June 24-25. The easy narrative is that Chicago’s catchers are old, glove-first veterans, whereas St Louis has a defensively-challenged, elite hitter behind the plate.
This, however, is baseball, so easy narratives rarely work.
I will make another boldish prediction that we will see a home run from one of the catchers that weekend.
The Cubs said farewell to their longstanding superstar catcher, Willson Contreras, at the end of last season. The Venezuelan, who signed with the Cubs as an amateur free agent in 2009, caught more than 600 big league games for Chicago and was widely acknowledged as one of the best two or three offensively-minded catchers in the game.
The table below shows the Top Five catchers according to Fangraphs’ Offensive WAR for 2017-2022.
By failing to trade Contreras at the deadline, there was an assumption that the Cubs would work out a deal to keep him at Wrigley, but no, the three-time All-Star was allowed to leave for free agency.
The Cubs have been unable to fill the void left by Contreras’ bat, and currently, the team is 26th out of 30 in run production from behind the plate, with only the Pirates, Padres, Marlins, and Guardians scoring fewer runs this season from the catcher position.
Instead, Chicago has opted against bat power in favour of the superior defensive abilities of 35-year-old Yan Gomes and 32-year-old Tucker Barnhart.
Long-time Cincinnati Red (and, therefore, a favourite of mine) Barnhart is one of only a handful of catchers with multiple Gold Glove awards. In eight years with Cincinnati, he posted 83 OPS+ (17% below the league average). Unfortunately, his production with the bat has got even worse since he left Ohio.
Yan Gomes is easily the best baseball player to have come from Brazil. Sao Paolo-born Yanimal enjoyed a 21-homer season back in 2014, which secured him the Silver Slugger award, and he has always had the potential for a bit of pop in his bat. The Cubs are his fifth team in an impressive career which will reach the landmark of 1,000 major league games either today or tomorrow.
With the retirement of future Hall-of-Famer catcher Yadier Molina at the end of last season, the Cardinals were in the market for a replacement behind the plate for the first time in 18 years. They swooped quickly to secure Willson Contreras to a five-year, $87.5 million contract. It seemed like a win-win deal for everyone (except the Cubs).
After a lukewarm opening month to the season – I can’t imagine how difficult it was to fill the shoes of a catcher who is third in the All-Time Gold Glove winner list – Contreras slumped with the bat in May, hitting just .168 (.573 OPS). His bat had always masked defensive inefficiencies, but the Cardinals panicked, and his new future at DH was announced.
Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol told reporters he was not blaming Contreras for the team’s struggles – they were 10-24 at the time and had just lost seven games on the bounce. Marmol confirmed that the decision was made in agreement with Contreras, the pitching coaches, and the president of baseball operations, John Mozeliak.
And then, The Athletic’s Katie Woo revealed outfield was to be Contreras’ new position. Was this buyer’s remorse, an inspired way to motivate the new signing or just another example of erratic man-management from the Cardinals?
Fortunately, the experiment was canned – Contreras didn’t start one game in the outfield – and he has been back behind the plate for the Cardinals’ last six games.
As a neutral spectator for the London Series, I am very happy that we will see Willson Contreras catching in this first-ever NL clash in Europe. I guess it will be mixed reactions from Cubs fans. Is he a traitor? Is he a hero? One thing for certain is that he will be one of the few players in London who won a World Series ring with the Cubs in 2016.
My i-Spy of things to spot during the London Series includes a Cubs’ Contreras jersey.
CATCHERS IN ACTION IN LONDON 2023 (and their 2023 stats)
The London Series 2023 will feature the first-ever NL games in Europe when the Chicago Cubs take on the St Louis Cardinals on Saturday 24 June and Sunday 25 June. Check out the Ticketmaster website with tickets starting from £59.00 – make sure you are following @Batflips_nerds for all your London Series content.