As frustrating as this season has been on the North Side of Chicago, many continue to hold out hope that at any given moment, this Cubs team is going to break out in a big way. We’ve seen some signs of it, though it has yet to materialize into anything resembling consistency, especially on the offensive side. There is, however, at least one player who experienced some early woes could be preparing to turn a corner: Willson Contreras.
What we saw on Monday night, with Contreras leading off the series opener against the Washington Nationals with a home run, is somewhat representative of what we’ve seen from the Cubs’ backstop in recent weeks. While the statistics may not reflect it quite yet, he could be ready to showcase a return to the level at which he performed for the majority of 2016.
Contreras rode a strong rookie campaign last year toward some rather lofty expectations for the 2017 season. Taking over as the starting man behind the dish, many, including yours truly, thought that Contreras had the potential to almost immediately break out among the league’s top offensive catchers. After all, this was a guy who ranked seventh among catchers in batting average (.282), sixth in on-base percentage (.357), and third in isolated power (.206) among players at the position with at least 250 plate appearances. While that breakout hasn’t happened in quite the way that was anticipated, he’s shown at least signs that such a rise to prominence, and a subsequent establishment among the elite offensive catchers, could be on the way.
As far as the offensive side of things is concerned, Willson obviously has not gotten off to a terrific start, and his overall numbers don’t paint the prettiest of pictures for the Cubs’ young backstop. As he approaches his total number of plate appearances from last season, this is how he stacks up in Major League action, heading into Monday’s action:
That’s a rather significant dip in production, entirely across the board. As such, there are a couple of directions in which one might look in order to garner some sort of explanation. One is the BABIP, which might have indicated some source of luck that led to him outperforming his tendencies last year. There’s definitely a luck element here, especially with the data below. While a .312 BABIP isn’t a putrid figure, it still represents a drop of almost 30 points, which is rather significant. With a young player like Contreras, though, the other direction that one may immediately be tempted to look toward is the approach and contact trends, with the following data coming from FanGraphs:
Oddly enough, there isn’t a whole lot there to indicate why Contreras has gotten off to a start that falls well short of expectations either. You’d obviously like for him to cut down on some of those swings and misses, but he’s maintaining a contact rate similar to last year and hitting the ball with about the same level of force, in a general sense. It’s not like he’s dropping the ball on the ground a whole lot more either, which could force some bad luck, as his groundball rate has risen by barely two percent.
In a general sense, there isn’t a completely obvious explanation as to why Contreras hasn’t had the year that was expected of him thus far in 2017. More important than that explanation is the fact that he’s showing a progression throughout the year that could certainly feed into a breakout in the second half of the season and beyond.
There are a couple of signs that might lend themselves to declaring a Willson Contreras breakout: he’s making both more and harder contact and, as a result, he’s being more demonstrative in his power. His Contact% chart at FanGraphs has his Contact% gradually rising throughout the year. There’s some late fluctuation, but overall, it’s up significantly from early in the season. Additionally, the month of June has been Contreras’ best month in terms of quality contact, as he’s gone for a Hard% 36.2 thus far in the month of June. He’s seen that number progressively increase in the first three months of the season, with a 28.9% figure in April that graduated to a 32.1% mark in May before yet another increase throughout this month.
The last two weeks, in particular, have allowed Contreras to showcase his power potential from behind the plate. His ISO over the last 14 days checks in at .256, the fifth-highest among 12 qualifying catchers in that time. It’s a stretch that had featured four doubles and a pair of home runs before his leadoff homer on Monday night. Hitting the ball over the fence is certainly a good way to shake off the BABIP monster, no matter how hard it tries to consume you.
While there are some flaws in his defensive game that could stand to obviously improve, Willson is starting to show flashes that could be essential to the Cubs climbing out of their largely stagnant offensive performance that has plagued them this year. He’s far from the only one, but Contreras contributing with the regularity at which he did last year would be a tremendous boost, especially with the raw power that he possesses. With the improving contact rate, quality of contact continuing to grow, and his ability to factor in heavily on the ISO side, it’s going to be fun to continue to watch him develop at the plate as the season wears on, in his first full year in the big leagues.
Lead photo courtesy Steve Mitchell—USA Today Sports