Willson Contreras Has His Work Cut Out for Him in 2016

On the face of it, the Cubs seem to have their catching situation covered in both the short and the long term. Last year, Miguel Montero—the big-league incumbent—was the fifth most-valuable catcher in the game, as measured by WARP (3.92), and his 13.9 FRAA ranked fourth, defensively, at the position. Meanwhile, Willson Contreras, the Cubs’ top catching prospect, broke out in a big way last year, winning the Southern League batting title and slashing a monstrous .333/.413/.478 over a full minor-league season.

With Montero already signed to a big-league contract for two more years and Contreras about to debut at Triple-A after his breakout 2015, the team seems to be in the enviable position of not needing to worry all that much about one of the most important positions on the diamond. Not only that, Montero (whose job is more at risk the better Contreras does) raves about the guy who will eventually replace him:

So what’s the problem? Well, here’s the thing: Although he’s made enormous strides offensively, I’m pretty sure that Contreras’s 2016 season on defense is what’s going to define his success, and determine whether or not he succeeds in Chicago or, conversely, winds up getting traded away before he ever reaches Wrigley. Because as good as Contreras’s defense is right now, it’s just not good enough for this front office—at least not yet.

In order to understand what I’m talking about, let’s take a look at what Theo Epstein & Co. think of the catcher position by analyzing the moves they’ve made (and didn’t make) in the past couple of years.

Let’s start with the facts: Miguel Montero became the Cubs’ starting catcher last year after the front office realized the team was going to have a real shot at competing. They also brought in David Ross to serve as the backup/personal catcher to Jon Lester. Lastly, and in order to fit Ross and Montero onto the roster, Wellington Castillo was traded away to the Mariners early last season.

Below is a table of the top defensive catchers in the league since 2006 (the year Montero debuted in the major leagues)—do you think the Cubs front office was looking at it while they were making those decisions? Keep in mind, of course, that their top target last offseason was Russell Martin.

Top Defensive Catchers Since 2006 (by FRAA, and Castillo)

Russell Martin 204.5
Jose Molina 196.6
Brian McCann 178.9
Yadier Molina 165.5
Jonathan Lucroy 160.6
Ryan Hanigan 103
David Ross 101
Buster Posey 76.3
Miguel Montero 76.1
Brad Ausmus 74.2
Wellington Castillo -42.9

Starting to see a trend here? Let’s also take a look at the rest of the organizational depth chart at the position (here I’m stealing from Matt Trueblood’s earlier piece on catching):

Player (Level) CSAA Runs EPAA Runs TRAA Runs SRAA Runs Total
Kyle Schwarber (AA) 5.9 -1.1 0.0 -1.2 3.6
Willson Contreras (AA) -6.4 1.3 0.0 -0.8 -5.9
Taylor Davis (AAA) 3.3 0.2 0.0 0.0 3.5
David Freitas (AAA) 10.7 -0.1 0.1 -0.7 10.0

That number on the far left? That’s their framing number. There’s only one player on that table with a negative number, and it’s Contreras. Yes, this data based on minor-league numbers and other players have posted negative numbers and then improved on them… but still. This is something he’s going to need to work on.

And if he doesn’t? Well, let’s talk about Rafael Lopez. He was a 15th-round pick who briefly got to serve as a backup to Castillo in 2014. Lopez controlled the strike zone very well (14 walk rate at Triple-A that year) and seemed like an ideal backup catcher. He wasn’t a top prospect, but he got some good publicity and everyone seemed to like him.

Lopez wound up getting traded to the Angels for Manuel Rondon before the 2015 season. His career FRAA in the minor leagues since 2013? -49.1. 

The Cubs’ front office clearly thinks that the catcher position is very important and any player that’s going to spend a significant amount of time there needs to very good at it. And that means they need to be good framers. Not just above average—they need to be elite at it.

Which brings us to Contreras and those below-average framing numbers of his. Has the front office decided that this guy is so good offensively (at least the 2015 version of him) that framing no longer matters and they’ll take what they get out of him? I think that’s unlikely.

Maybe they know something we don’t about Contreras and they’re confident they have the personnel to teach him this skill. After all, they’ve got two elite framers on the team as it is and two very good framers in the minors.

Maybe they’re going to put him behind the Hack Attack machine and use technology and repetition to make him a better catcher. As Cubs catching coordinator Tim Cossins said in that piece:

“Not a lot of people want to get back there and do it. It’s a desire-based position. You see guys who don’t connect with it, and you see guys who get immersed in it and end up loving it. Once you get a guy who falls in love with the position, then you have something you can work with.”

Maybe the Cubs really can teach catchers how to become better framers if they have the right aptitude for it, and that’s the plan with Contreras. All they need is a guy that loves to catch and is willing to put in the hard work. We’ve heard the front office rave about Kyle Schwarber’s makeup, and they’re just as complimentary about Castillo Contreras: 

“He’s always been a wonderful kid — passionate, big smile, hard worker. But there was more of a maturity level to him. He’s always going to play with passion — that’s just the way he is — but there was a different confidence that came with the maturity from Day 1 in spring training. And he carried that throughout the whole year.”

He’ll need that confidence, and that maturity, in 2016. As you watch him grow and develop this year, keep a close eye on his defense, not just his offense. That’s where the work is for Contreras this year. And it could define his future in this organization.

Lead photo courtesy Dan Hamilton—USA Today Sports.

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8 comments on “Willson Contreras Has His Work Cut Out for Him in 2016”


Complimentary about Contreras, not Castillo

Carlos Portocarrero

Oops, thanks for the heads up! Fixed now.


Drives me crazy that pitch framing has seemingly not only trumped all other analytics of a C, but also has made them nonexistent.

The weakness of pitch framing: it’s a pitch. It’s not a base, let alone a run, let alone 4 runs, let alone a W.

What is the percentage of pitches that are even “frameable”? 33%? 25%? Next, of that minority, how many actually influence the ump? It’s not half. Call it a quarter–for even the best or worst (or, to truly investigate the trustworthiness, check out one of the best 2 yrs ago-Lucroy–vs one of the worst this past yr–Lucroy). We are talking 16% of all pitches–and perhaps far fewer.

We then hafta remember that, while pitch count is important, it’s still just a pitch; it only becomes so much as a base when it results in a BB or called K.

We also hafta ask ourselves who made whom, e.g., could Maddux get all those corner calls cuz of his (various!!) C’s–or was it Maddux?

A guy that throws out more runners is more valuable than a better pitch framer. So is a guy that commits fewer E’s, PB, or prevents more WP’s. Those each represent REAL BASES.

Finally, don’t forget that Piazza, Simmons, Torre were great with the bat–again, more bases, more runs–which in turn led to their EXTREME VALUE to their teams.

As for this Cubs’ system–crime we were forced to let go of Castillo for Ross; crime we still have Ross; we are in great shape with Schwarber as a backup C, so lose Ross; with a Contreras/Schwarbs rotation, we can even lose Montero; if you’re worried about the kids not making it, Davis was better offensively and defensively at a higher level than Contreras was, and Federowicz is far better defensively than Ross right this second. Hoping Theo does the right thing.


But we already know that FRAA rates framing much more highly than blocking and throwing, so there’s something there at least.

I’m no expert on these stats, but I think there’s a reason why framing is so important: high stress pitches. Take the Moneyball emphasis on 1-1 pitch outcomes. How valuable is framing in terms of reducing 2-1 and 3-1 counts and transforming them into 1-2 and 2-2 counts? How many fewer high stress pitches are pitchers forced to deliver because of framing success?

And there’s plenty of extrapolation from that: longer starts and less exposure of a team’s weakest bullpen pitchers in the middle innings.

I don’t know if FRAA takes that into account, but it seems clear that framing can substantially alter the outcome of a pitcher’s day in totality, and that of the team.

The big question to me is whether framing is already growing passe; I believe the Catchella reports indicated that umpires seem to be growing wise to framing, which could diminish its importance over time.


Framing really isn’t anything new, though. You’d think that the umps became wise to it 100 years ago. These guys are pretty good, not easily fooled.


I get the Moneyball ref, but it’s still just a pitch, still just a CHANGING of the odds, still POTENTIAL in nature–not real. A base is real. And every base a C is better than his peers–be it catching runners, blocking WP, avoiding Es and PB, and knocking the crap outta the ball–every one of these is much more valuable than framing in general.

Couple guys to look at for context: LuCroy, who showed this yr the data is suspicious, and Sal Perez, who rated among the worst framers on his way to maintaining as one of the best C’s.

Carlos Portocarrero

I love the debate around the metric, but what you can’t argue with is that the front office definitely seems to be favoring this skill in how they acquire catchers.


Let me say first that it’s great to have a forum for these discussions, and I hope you also enjoy the back and forth.

A lot of emphasis is placed on offensive skill sets that change the odds and generate potential; understanding the strike zone, taking pitches, long at-bats. These are skills that improve chances for the most important outcome of an at-bat: getting on base, both in that particular at-bat and in the long run of a game.

Blocking and throwing are important, yes, but these skills largely only matter if someone is on base. If it is true that the most important role for a batter is not to be put out, then it would seem that any defensive skills that contribute to a batter being put out would outweigh defensive skills that impact batters who do reach base, in my opinion.

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