How is Willson Contreras’ Development Going?

Back in February, I wrote a piece asking a question that may seem silly today: will Willson Contreras ever play a game for the Chicago Cubs? At the time, the answer was relatively clear: the number-2 prospect in the organization seemed to be the heir apparent behind the plate after breaking out and winning the batting title at Double-A.

In that article I took a bit of a contrarian view, pointing out that Contreras’ framing abilities at that time were below average. Then I noted that this front office has made move after move (going after Russell Martin) after move (trading for Miguel Montero) after move (trading away Welington Castillo) that underscores a very simple notion: they value pitch framing and they value it very much.

Look at what happened with Welington Castillo: he was the heir apparent behind the plate: young, good arm, a powerful bat. It mattered not: they ended up giving him away for nothing after carrying three catchers to start the 2015 season. 

Now Castillo is one of the top offensive catchers in baseball with 7 home runs and a .277 TAv. But the front office apparently doesn’t give those offensive numbers too much weight—they’re more interested in his -7.5 FRAA and mediocre 0.2 WARP.

I closed out that February article with an ominous note, so let’s go ahead and quote that here:

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.

Now let’s take a look at how Contreras is developing down at Triple-A Iowa so far in 2016.

Willson Contreras .385 7 .343 .436 .590 3.3

Contreras is absolutely crushing it with the bat right now. He’s already hit more home runs than he hit in 126 games at Double-A last year, which is a great sign of his developing power. But look at the control of the strike zone: Contreras is as many walks as he has strikeouts (27), which is incredibly rare. The batting eye that allowed him to win the batting title last season has carried over seamlessly to Triple-A, and that’s another great sign.

But what about the defense? That’s what my previous piece asked us to keep tabs on, so let’s look at how that’s progressing. Contreras is sporting a -2.4 FRAA, which pegs him as a notch below average. While his framing numbers aren’t “as bad” as they were last season (-7.6 FRAA), they’re still below average, and that’s something that could keep him from becoming a fixture behind the plate for a team that values framing this much.

Or could it? Perhaps the front office isn’t as strict about framing anymore? Maybe the offensive upside is so great that they’re willing to go with a catcher that isn’t elite at framing pitches? Or maybe the publicly available framing numbers we have don’t matter too much to the Cubs?

We’ve looked at the numbers, but let’s take a look at what the front office says about Contreras. Jason McLeod, the SVP of scouting and player development had this to say:

“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.”

Theo Epstein also has lavished the young backstop with praise:

Contreras put together an unbelievable all-around season in Double-A last year. We think he’s ready for Triple-A. Great blocker, really strong throwing arm, has a chance to be a force defensively. This kid is a really underrated athlete. Has power to all fields, is going to work the gaps, is going to be, I think, a really productive offensive catcher to go along with his throwing arm.

Let’s listen to the words of his current manager, Mike Pevey:

“From a hitting standpoint, he could go up there and survive right now, if not prosper,” Pevey said. “But defensively and game-calling, he’s got a long way to go.”

Pevey said Contreras just needs more reps and more experience behind the plate.

“He needs to catch,” Pevey said. “He needs to call games. He’s such a good athlete. He just needs to play.”

 This doesn’t sound like a player that the Cubs feel isn’t going to be able to put it all together. While the below-average framing numbers still stand out to this skeptical writer, I think it’s less about the player and more about one of the problems with trying to analyze what a professional team is doing from the outside.

The infamous Donald Rumsfeld video on unknown unknowns comes to mind.

We don’t know what numbers or video analysis or specific indicators the Cubs are paying attention to in order to monitor how his framing is developing and what potential lies untapped within the player. We’re on the periphery and all we have are the numbers we have access to, which are good, but we don’t know what we don’t know. But we also have to weigh the words coming from the team. And as Rian Watt has written, this front office isn’t going to BS you—honesty is important and if they say Contreras is going to be on this team, then we have no reason to think otherwise. 

How do Contreras’ sub-par framing numbers fit into the story? The team is either adjusting their opinion on the importance of framing or they know something we don’t know. Whichever one it is, I’m eager to find out.

Lead photo courtesy Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports.

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4 comments on “How is Willson Contreras’ Development Going?”


Barring injury I think it’s pretty obvious that Contreras will stay at AAA all season. That said, you have to wonder at what point his offense more than makes up for his pitch framing ability relative to Montero and Ross. Ross is finally coming back to earth OPS-wise, and Montero is now hitting worse than the 2013 version of himself that was the low point of his career to date.

I know offense isn’t everything and maybe I am just having a knee-jerk reaction to the Cubs struggling to score runs the past couple games (where would we be without Lester and Hammel hitting prowess?!!?), but I love the idea of Contreras’ hitting upside. Watching the $180 million man hit into an inning ending DP last night just killed me. I really miss having the incredibly dangerous Schwarber.

The CHI Sports Fan (@TheCHISportsFan)

Didn’t I read that Contraras is also focusing on English? I know he struggled last year, but I could see where communication (preparation, mound visits, etc) could be an issue with non-hispanic speaking pitchers.

Daniel Rivera

Feels like a perfect situation. The Cubs have Ross and Miggy as primary catchers this year. Ross retires after this season so it seems that Montero/Contreras becomes the 2017 backstop tandem. Maybe start Miggy over Contreras in 17 until it becomes apparent that Contreras is that everyday guy. Montero seems like her has the mentality to tutor Contreras and help him develop into a decent framer.


It seems to me that the cubs have plans for him or he would have been traded. Maybe a trade will happen in the future, but the number 1 prospect at catcher is huge. Theo is smarter than that. He was willing to go with Schwarber at catcher, he will stick with Contreras. Especially, in my view, when Schwarber has played his last game as a cub.

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