When a three-team deal was announced last December that saw ten different players change hands, it was hardly surprising that Sean Murphy’s move to Atlanta received the lion’s share of the focus, particularly considering the fact that Murphy inked a six-year extension with the Braves just two weeks later. After all, rumors of the A’s looking to move on from their franchise catcher had circulated for weeks at that point and the Braves, who were coming off a 101-win season that was ultimately cut short during the NLDS, were an interesting landing spot.
Nine months later, it’s unlikely the Braves have any regrets about the deal. Murphy has taken a step forward with the bat in Atlanta, slashing a sensational .278/.387/.538 with a career-best wRC+ of 149 that when combined with his typical stellar defense behind the plate has allowed the 28-year-old All-Star to rack up 4.3 fWAR in just 87 games this season. Meanwhile, the Braves are the consensus best team in baseball with Fangraphs’ playoff odds giving the club an incredibly 26.5% chance at winning the World Series this year.
While Atlanta’s success both in this season and in landing Murphy is impressive in its own right, the Braves are not the only winner of this trade to this point in the season. Indeed, they may not even be the biggest winner of the deal so far. That’s because the Brewers, the requisite third team needed to help facilitate the deal, managed to turn their #8 prospect in outfielder Esteury Ruiz into five seasons of an All-Star catcher of their own, plus an excellent set-up man and an additional pitching prospect to boot.
En route to a breakout season with Atlanta during which he made his first career All-Star appearance, catcher William Contreras shared time behind the plate with Travis d’Arnaud while also mixing in at DH and even in the outfield. In all, he slashed an impressive .278/.354/.506 with 20 home runs in just 376 trips to the plate.
While that impressive display of power combined with Contreras’s 10.4% walk rate was enough to make him the 12th most valuable catcher in all of baseball last year, there were reasons to wonder if the youngster would be able to maintain his production going forward. Contreras’s 27.7% strikeout rate left plenty of reason for concern, as was a massive .344 BABIP. With those potential red flags signalling possible regression in Contreras’s future, it’s hardly a surprise to find that his .370 wOBA in 2022 outstripped his .347 xwOBA considerably.
Far more concerning than his offensive numbers, which were excellent for a catcher even if they regressed to match his expected numbers, was his glovework behind the plate. In 2022, Contreras was worth -7 runs per Statcast’s catcher defense metric, with negative marks in each of framing, stealing, and blocking. His framing, in particular, left much to be desired, as he landed in just the 20th percentile of all catchers in terms of catcher framing runs, with only 3 catchers in the sport posting a worse figure than Contreras’s -3 without receiving more pitches than him. Fielding Bible’s DRS agreed with that assessment, as Contreras’s -4 mark put him in the bottom 20 of all catchers last year.
With so many questions regarding Contreras’s fielding and his ability to maintain last year’s excellent offensive production, it makes perfect sense for the Braves to prefer a fully developed, surefire starting catcher in the form of Murphy. That preference created a window of opportunity for the Brewers, however, who had just lost their current starting catcher, Omar Narvaez, to free agency. The club had a history of helping bat-first catchers develop defensively, including with Narvaez himself.
This year, Milwaukee has managed to add Contreras to their list of defensive success stories behind the plate. It’s been a transformational year defensively for Contreras, as the youngster has soared to an excellent +8 runs per Statcast, with his catcher framing runs in particular leaping from -3 all the way up to +7, the seventh-best mark in the sport this year behind only defensive stalwarts like Murphy, Austin Hedges, and Jonah Heim. Once again, DRS backs up Contreras’s improvement behind the dish as well, as his +7 DRS leaves him as the eighth most valuable defensive catcher in baseball according to the metric, even clocking in ahead of Murphy.
Contreras’s defense is clearly the star of the show when discussing his year-to-year improvement, but his offensive adjustments deserve a mention as well. While he has undergone some expected offensive regression from his All-Star campaign in 2022, particularly in the power department, his current production is not only still excellent for a catcher (his 113 wRC+ ranks 6th among catchers with at least 300 PA this season) but also appears far more sustainable going forward. His BABIP has dipped to a less outlandish .327 figure, but most importantly, Contreras has cut his strikeout rate to just 20.4%, a figure that’s actually better than league average. While his walk rate has dipped slightly and he isn’t hitting for as much power this season, this new version of Contreras is posting a strong .341 wOBA that matches his .338 xwOBA, indicating a level of sustainability that couldn’t be found in last season’s power-driven numbers.
Contreras isn’t the only player the Brewers received in last year’s trade, of course. While pitching prospect Justin Yeager has managed just 2 1/3 innings of work this season while spending almost the entire year on the injured list, right-handed reliever Joel Payamps has also proved to be a revelation with Milwaukee, though not quite as impactful of one as Contreras. Payamps came to the Brewers as a solid if unexciting middle reliever, with a career 3.35 ERA and 4.19 FIP in 113 innings of work with the Diamondbacks, Blue Jays, Royals, and A’s.
Since joining the Brewers, however, he’s looked like a different pitcher entirely. His walk rate dipped from a career 7.6% mark entering 2023 to just 5% this season, while his strikeout rate ballooned from a career mark of just 17.6% entering the year to an incredible 29.3% figure with Milwaukee. Those improvements are seemingly thanks to a combination of across-the-board velocity gains and change in his pitch-mix to emphasis his slider. Payamps’ step forward has allowed the Brewers to rely on him as the primary set-up man to closer Devin Williams, forming a lethal duo at the back of the club’s bullpen.
As with any trade, a few months isn’t enough time to understand the full scope of the impact last year’s three-team blockbuster will have on the clubs involved. Ruiz, who has posted a wRC+ of just 81 with Oakland this year but has offered plus defense in center field and swiped a whopping 48 bags, could prove to be a valuable piece in the coming years and change the perception of the deal. True as that may be, however, Milwaukee’s front office is surely delighted with the early returns on the deal, particularly considering they control Payamps through the end of the 2026 campaign and Contreras through the end of 2027.