Catching Defense Suddenly a Legitimate Strength

Despite the stability largely provided by their exceptional core of young talent, the Cubs entered 2017 with some questions behind the plate. Set to roll with a combination of Willson Contreras and Miguel Montero, there were questions as to the defensive development of the former, and questions about the offensive production of the latter. A few months later, they find themselves in an extremely different situation regarding their group of backstops.

It’s not as if it was all entirely by choice, either. Early on, Contreras and Montero proved a formidable duo, with Montero’s saving grace coming via his resurgent bat more than anything. But Montero’s mouth, as well as a noodle arm (that’s the technical term), helped him punch his ticket right out of town. Victor Caratini provided a temporary no. 2 before they were able to acquire Alex Avila at the trade deadline. Then, with the hamstring injury suffered by Willson Contreras, they were able to snag Rene Rivera off of waivers, resulting Caratini’s demotion but suddenly giving us an entirely new perspective on the Cubs’ defense behind the plate.

For Willson Contreras, while there was still some development to go in his defensive game, he’s shown visible strides throughout the year. His framing has improved, something that we examined back in May. His blocking doesn’t need anything more than an eye test, as it’s been put to the test on more occasions this year than anyone would care to admit. The arm is undeniable, as anyone considering an extra large lead against Jon Lester would probably tell you. On the Montero side, the benefits presented by his framing were outweighed by his complete inability to control the run game, ultimately resulting in his departure from the team.

So while there were certainly positives to that duo, and it’s one that would’ve been an enviable pair in certain respects, the total body of work was something that could stand to improve. Fast forward a few months later, and a stable of backstops that is set to include Contreras, Avila, and Rivera is one that, based off of recent years, should far exceed the defensive capabilities of the previous situation.

The following represents where the Cubs’ catchers this season stand, as depicted by called strikes above average (CSAA), errant pitches allowed (EPAA), throwing runners out on stealing attempts (TRAA), and steals allowed by prospective base stealers (SRAA):

Contreras -0.016 0.000 0.006 0.017
Avila 0.046 0.000 0.000 0.013
Rivera 0.006 0.003 0.001 0.000
Montero 0.007 -0.002 0.008 0.115

Illustrated above are Avila’s catching metrics since joining the Cubs, Rivera’s with New York (as his sample with the Cubs is still extremely small), and Montero’s while with the Cubs.

Avila is a superior framer to virtually everyone in baseball, based off of CSAA, but it’s important to note that Rivera is also coming off of a year in which he ranked in the top-10 in that figure (in addition to being almost identical to Montero in his time with the Cubs). And even if Contreras still has some growth that he needs to experience on the framing side, he, as well as his two counterparts at the position, has been superior to Montero in every other respect. The trio also all rank better in preventing errant pitches and managing the opposition on the basepaths than Montero by a wide margin.

When Willson Contreras does return, it’ll be interesting to see what the balance looks like for the three. But the versatility of Contreras should allow for ample time for the others to see their way into the lineup. Regardless of how that pans out, it’s beyond question that the Cubs have managed to drastically improve their defensive situation behind the plate. It certainly bodes well for the remainder of the season, even if the backup catching picture beyond 2017 is somewhat murky.

It’s certainly not a coincidence that the starting pitching has been superior over the past couple of months compared to what it was churning out early in the year.┬áIt remains to be seen what the catching situation will look like beyond 2017, but the value of defensive stability in several different respects behind the plate is undeniable. The Cubs now have an arsenal of backstops capable of aiding their pitching assault, while also controlling the run game. And, especially in the cases of Contreras and Avila, they’re not too shabby on the offensive side either.

Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports

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