It’s been just over three months since Cubs catching prodigy Willson Contreras made his MLB debut at Wrigley Field. Though he wouldn’t register a plate appearance in that particular game, two days later Contreras would come up to the dish for the first time and, in true Cubs rookie fashion, hit a first-pitch, two-run home run in front of the Wrigley Faithful.
It was almost as if that was a metaphor for what was to come in the next three months that Contreras would spend on the North Side. In June, fans wondered if Contreras would eventually be sent back down to Triple-A Iowa after the Cubs got their first look at how he fared in a major league environment. What they saw instead was a catcher who flourished, was thirsty for knowledge, and made one of the smoothest transitions to the big leagues the Cubs have seen since their big call-up haul of 2015.
Defense was always the major area of concern for the 24-year old rookie from Venezuela, but bringing Contreras up to be mentored by the Cubs two current catchers who were more known for their framing efforts than their offensive ones, Contreras couldn’t have asked for a better learning experience to thrive from.
“One of the things I’m hearing a lot from pitchers is how much they not only like throwing to him, but they have faith in what he’s calling,” manager Joe Maddon said of the young catching prodigy. “And you know why? He has been a great student. Montero and Ross can help him with a lot of things, but it’s like being in a classroom — either you’re a willing student or you’re not, and he is.”
The numbers don’t lie, either. Of course, Contreras has only participated in 73 major league games so far on the season, and not all of them have been behind the plate. But Baseball Prospectus’ advanced framing metrics tend to stabilize at an extremely quick rate, giving us a solid look into Contreras’ catching abilities without having to add the small sample size caveat.
Take a look at the numbers Contreras is putting up defensively as compared to Montero and Ross:
|Player||CSAA||Framing Runs||Blocking Runs||EPAA||SRAA||TRAA|
Obviously, Montero wins in the framing runs category by quite a bit, but the important part is that Contreras is not in the red in anything but controlling stolen bases and the running game, skills that will naturally begin to develop further later on in his journey. Right now, Contreras has been holding his own very well among two top defensive catchers in all of baseball. For a catcher who has only seen just above 1,800 framing chances during his time behind a big league dish, that’s quite impressive. Especially when considering that just a few months ago defensive improvements were a number one concern regarding whether or not Contreras would be a fit behind the plate for the remainder of the season and potentially the postseason.
Offensively, Contreras has dazzled the crowds since his mid-June arrival. He isn’t putting on Kris Bryant-style spectacles every evening for Cubs fans to marvel at, but then again Contreras wasn’t going to do that even at his ceiling. He’s a catcher, and offensively he’s blending in incredibly well with the major league catching scene. Take a look where his offensive stats rank above all major league catchers with a minimum 200 plate appearances:
Over the last three short months, Contreras has transformed into a well rounded beginner as a catching option for the Cubs, as well as a very solid top tier offensive bat. The question now becomes, how do you take those two facts and make them work to your advantage in the playoffs? Having Contreras’ bat in the lineup each October night feels indispensible, especially considering that offense is the weaker point for the Cubs other catching options. Having Contreras behind the plate may not seem like the best option for the rookie catcher as far as pressure is concerned, no matter how comfortable this strong Cubs rotation feels throwing to him. But leave it to Joe Maddon, who can simple deploy his famous positional flexibility to make the best of all possible worlds out of this roster come October.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports.