Sometimes lost in the hoopla surrounding the Cubs’ enviable young nucleus is catcher Willson Contreras. A relative unknown prior to 2015, a strong minor league season coupled with the Southern League batting title and the Cubs’ 2015 Minor League Player of the Year award vaulted him into everyone’s top prospects list heading into last season. Continued success at the minor league level prompted the team to give him a call-up in June, where he took the first pitch he saw and belted it to dead center over the fence for a home run.
Whereas last year he was in a platoon with David Ross and Miguel Montero, the former’s retirement coupled with the latter’s regressed performance has Maddon tabbing Contreras as his starting catcher for the 2017 season, and there’s a lot to like. Offensively he’s an upgrade over both, with a bat that can play for average and power. His .278 career batting average along with his .827 OPS enables him to get on base while also driving in the guys ahead of him, which makes him the ideal 6-7 hole hitter, where he’ll probably end up for most of the season. He has power to all sides of the field, as evident by his spray chart on batted balls and hits via Fangraphs:
What’s impressive about these findings is Contreras’ ability to drive the ball the other way. He hits more balls in the air to right as opposed to pulling the ball, which suggests that there’s more power to be had if he learns to pull the ball more, which is what Kris Bryant worked on prior to last season. However, being that the Cubs don’t need him to be a main run-producing-type player, his approach right now will suffice, though sacrificing average for power is tempting.
Defensively, Contreras is also above average. Perhaps his greatest strength is his throwing arm, which we’ve seen on display a number of times already in his young career.
That’s Dee Gordon he threw out, who’s stolen 152 bases the last three seasons. A cannon of an arm is an asset that any everyday catcher has to have to succeed and Contreras definitely has it. What he also has is a keen awareness of what’s happening on the base paths, as evident by these two plays.
The first video is a design play. Contreras noted that Janikowski was cheating off 3rd base a little after every pitch so he called an outside fastball so he could get a good jump off his feet to put some extra heat on his throw. The second video is only possible if Contreras makes the absolute perfect throw: right on the left-field side of the bag where Turner’s hand was reaching. The degree of difficulty of that play is off the charts, and the combination of arm speed and accuracy to make that play is impressive.
Framing pitches has gotten more popular as advanced analytics takes the baseball world by storm. The Cubs last year already had two of the premier pitch framers in the sport, as Ross and Montero both ranked inside the top 6 in oStr% (percentage of balls caught outside the strike zone called for a strike) according to StatCorner. Coming into the season there were questions surrounding Contreras’ ability to frame, however the tutelage he received from the aforementioned Ross and Montero was extremely helpful, as Contreras now grades as an above average framer. His oStr% is 8.1, 1.1 above league average for last season. In the minors Contreras’ body was too active, meaning when he tried to frame the pitch he wouldn’t make it look natural, as noted by August Fagerstrom at Fangraphs here. As Contreras got more experienced, his framing improved immensely, as noted here, here and here. He accounted for 3.3 runs above average (RAA) last season, which measures the amount of runs produced compared to an average framer. It’s important to note that Contreras earned those marks while only playing 48 games at catcher, so those numbers will only improve now that he’s the starting catcher moving forward.
With increased playing time it’s going to be exciting to see what Contreras can do, both offensively and defensively. A true do-it-all force, the 24-year-old is poised to be one of the premier catchers in baseball and one of the few offensive threats the position has. Steamer projects him to hit .271 with 13 HR and 54 RBIs. Not bad, but with at least double the plate appearances he had last season a 15 HR/60 RBI season is within reach, with the possibility of a 20/80 season probably being the max. Not bad for a bottom of the order catcher.
Our 2017 season projections: .265/.350/.475, 18 HR, 65 RBIs, 70 Runs
*Image via Arturo Pardavila III