The 2017 season opened with a walk-off loss to the Cardinals, on national television, at the hands of the Actually Bad Randal Grichuk. Coming off a World Series win, it was difficult to feel down about the loss—but then they kept coming. Until recently, it seemed impossible for the Cubs to snap off a winning streak, and they have hovered around .500 all season. The hitters were sputtering, the starting pitching couldn’t make it out of the first inning without surrendering multiple runs, and overall, the team was very frustrating to watch.
After Opening Day, I wrote about how the loss to the Cardinals felt. It was a loss that helped cement the ethos post-championship Cubs fandom: things have changed, yes, but there are elements that will always remain the same. I found pleasure and some solace in Willson Contreras’s game-tying home run that night, a reminder of how far this team has come since the nadir of 2012, when even tying such a game would have been unthinkable. The subsequent loss tugged me back to that era, too, but with a bit of a different perspective. But, at the center was Contreras’s homer, a moment of ecstatic joy from a player who signifies the new direction of this ballclub.
In the months since that April night, Contreras has continued to deliver big hits and provide an emotional anchor for a reeling Cubs team. A tough stretch in May, when Contreras’s OPS dropped to an unsightly .630, gave way to a two-month period when the catcher raised that mark 200 points, to its current .822. In July alone, he’s hit .380/.436/.700, and carried the club as the team’s cleanup hitter behind the Bryant/Rizzo tandem. Contreras is having a very good 2017, and, at this point, he has accumulated about one season’s worth of plate appearances in his short career. In his 585 plate appearances, he’s hit .277/.348/.486 with 25 home runs, all while walking and striking out at league-average levels. On the other side of the ball, he’s improved from a questionable framer with a good arm to a solid framer with a great arm, quelling many of the doubts that evaluators and fans had about his glove. He’s developed good rapports with the starters on the pitching staff as well, and, with the departures of David Ross and then Miguel Montero, he has shouldered the burden of being the primary catcher with aplomb.
I can tell you that Contreras has improved, or I can show you that Contreras has improved to become one of the best catchers in the majors. Let’s take a look at some comparisons, shall we? First, we can compare Contreras’s holistic production by taking the three popular Wins Above Replacement metrics (bWAR, fWAR, WARP) and looking at how he stacks up versus a few of the other top catchers in the league. I don’t particularly care for WAR, with its large margin of error and dubious inclusion of defensive metrics (doubly so for catchers), but it’s a fine starting point for a quick and dirty comparison. Since WAR is cumulative, I did not filter for qualified catchers, as many do not reach the threshold to qualify.
|bWAR rank||fWAR rank||WARP rank|
This group comprises the current elite catchers in the majors, plus Alex Avila who is having an inexplicably good year at the plate and a characteristically bad one behind it. For context, BP’s WARP metric incorporates catcher framing into its formula, so some of the WARP rankings are quite a bit different than the other two metrics which weigh defense differently.
Quite clearly, Contreras is one of the top catchers in the majors in 2017, and his hitting pedigree and youth indicate the ability for growth on both offense and defense. One would not be stretching the truth to say that only Buster Posey has been better this season overall, but that, again, depends on how you value catcher defense. Contreras is also the second-youngest of this group, just a smidge older than Gary Sanchez, who is also playing in his sophomore season.
But we here at BP are never satisfied with just the surface-level analysis like this. After all, if WAR has any purpose, it’s supposed to spark conversation, not end it. It’s worth looking at Contreras’s growth as a defensive player, especially after a year in which he played a significant amount of left field as the Cubs pushed deep into the playoffs. Glancing at Contreras’s preseason PECOTA projections perhaps belies Contreras’s true defensive ability at the start of the year, but it’s an interesting gauge of the skepticism many had regarding his defense. PECOTA pegged Contreras for -8 Fielding Runs Above Average, a poor mark that dragged down his projected WARP. In reality, he’s been worth 1.5 FRAA, which, while not remarkable, is quite serviceable for a young catcher who hits very well and throws out runners.
Broken down, Contreras’s defensive marks relay the truth: he’s a fairly average defensive catcher with no glaring holes in his game. With the sixth-most framing chances among catchers, Contreras has been worth -1.4 runs; with the most steal attempts of any catcher, Contreras has been worth -0.1 runs; and with the third-most blocking chances, Contreras has been worth 0.3 runs. Overall, he comes to his average FRAA through average performance across the board. While his pure receiving runs are slightly in the negative, his non-receiving defensive ability (i.e. grounders) brings him up into slightly positive territory, and 24th out of 83 catchers.
The eye test bears this out as well. He’s not glaringly bad at any aspect of catching, and his arm is good enough to make up for some serious running game deficiencies among Cubs pitchers. There’s nothing wrong with being an unassuming but steady presence behind the plate, and Contreras would be just that if it weren’t for his zealous throws behind runners on base. Interestingly, Contreras’s defensive numbers are slightly worse than his 2016 numbers, even while FRAA is cumulative, and Contreras has caught much more this season. In 2016, Contreras put up a somewhat surprising 3.6 FRAA, with 4.3 runs derived from framing alone—both numbers much better than that which he posted in Double- and Triple-A. It was enough to compel some writers to recalibrate their preseason thoughts about Contreras’s defense, projections be damned.
Offensively, Contreras has performed just as well as most expected. His .292 TAv isn’t as good as 2016’s .302 mark, mostly due to an 18 point drop in OBP, but he has still hit for 20-homer power and reached base at an above-average clip. He’s essentially the guy who won the Southern League batting title in 2015, and he shows no signs of changing soon. Combined with his improved defense and room for defensive development, Contreras has somewhat quietly become one of the top-three or -five catchers in the game, and he’s only just turned 25. While Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant anchor the corners of the Cubs’ infield for the next few years, they’ll have a solid companion behind the plate—the third-most important piece on a young Cubs’ roster with a wide World Series window.
Lead photo courtesy Dale Zanine—USA Today Sports