The idea of a three-catcher rotation is not a foreign one during Joe Maddon’s regime as manager of the Chicago Cubs. It was a strategy initially employed at the beginning of Maddon’s first season with the club, 2015, when the team broke camp with three catchers on their opening night roster: Miguel Montero, David Ross and Welington Castillo.
Though dubbed the “Three-Headed Catching Monster, “ that arrangement did not last very long, as Castillo was shipped to Seattle that May, dropping the Cubs’ catching squad back down to two. But the Monster returned midway through the 2016 season as the Cubs again employed another triad of backstops, this time grouping Montero and Ross with rookie Willson Contreras. Of course, that crew worked pretty well as all three knocked in a run in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series, making the Cubs the first team to elicit three RBI from three catchers in a World Series game.
Yet, even accounting for the previous year’s success balancing three catchers, at the start of this year, the 2017 Cubs proceeded with only two – Contreras and Montero – following David Ross’ retirement.
But the Contreras/Montero duo didn’t make it out of the first half as the veteran Montero was designated for assignment following critical comments he had made regarding Jake Arrieta and the Cubs’ pitching staff’s difficulty handling opposing running games. Following Montero’s DFA, the Cubs promoted Triple-A catcher Victor Caratini to supplement Contreras. But, the idea of a rookie backing up a second-year catcher seemed unnecessarily precarious, especially with multiple veterans available near the trade deadline.
On July 31, the Cubs pulled the trigger on acquiring one of those veterans as they picked up Alex Avila from the Detroit Tigers. The tandem of Contreras and Avila looked promising as the Cubs headed down the stretch. Avila, a lefty, had always been more successful against right-handed pitching in his career whereas Contreras, a righty, had always hit lefties slightly better throughout his. On top of that, pairing a veteran like Avila with a younger player like Contreras felt safer for a team with World Series aspirations. Behind the dish, neither graded out as a particularly great pitch framer, but both brought a good arm to combat base stealers. In sum, the match was pretty ideal.
But the duo was short lived, as Contreras injured his hamstring just days after the trade, on August 9. With that, the Cubs went back to the drawing board and acquired another veteran catcher, this time on wavers from the New York Mets, bringing Rene Rivera to Chicago on August 19. Though his acquisition was as quiet as it gets, Rivera’s calling card has always been his defensive skills as he has long been known as a catcher with a particularly good arm. Throughout late August and early September, the Cubs’ catching rotation was Avila and Rivera – two guys who had not been on the team just weeks earlier.
Yet the most impressive aspect of the Cubs’ 2017 catching trio has been their ability to not miss a beat, as each player has stepped up impressively when needed. Take a look at their numbers in the second half:
|Contreras/Avila/Rivera 2017 Second Half (as of 9/16/17)|
Of course, these stats all must be caveated with small-ish sample sizes. Due to his injury, Contreras has only gotten 115 second-half plate appearances, while Avila and Rivera have only seen 93 and 40, respectively, since their moves to Chicago. But nonetheless, it is still extraordinarily impressive to have all three of the Cubs primary catchers producing above average offensively. While Willson Contreras’ extremely hot second-half has been well covered – he is hitting to the highest second-half wRC+ on the team (take that, perennial MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo) – all three of these catchers have played huge roles in getting the Cubs into first place in the NL Central and keeping them there throughout this second-half. If the Cubs hang on into October, one of the most critical aspects will have been the value produced by the catching corps since the All-Star break.
That begs the question of what would become of the three of them if the team does make the postseason. Assuming health, Contreras and Avila are obvious locks for the October roster, but Rivera is far more of a question mark as a third catcher may be deemed an unnecessary luxury. Nonetheless, his offensive production, coupled with his defensive skills, may make Maddon and the front office strongly consider resurrecting the Three-Headed Catching Monster again this postseason.
Rivera’s potential spot would be contingent on how many other roster decisions shake out. One signal that could work to Rivera’s advantage is that the past two seasons, Joe Maddon has veered toward keeping more players on his bench than in his bullpen. Though he has typically maintained eight relievers and four bench players throughout the regular seasons since joining the Cubs, in the 2015 playoffs, Maddon downsized the bullpen to seven relievers to increase the bench to six extra position players. With the exception of the NLCS, when Tommy La Stella was swapped out for pitcher Rob Zastryzny, he used the same seven reliever-six bench arrangement last year, as well.
Maddon’s bullpen philosophy is clear: He does not see the virtue of carrying extraneous relievers he does not trust on the postseason roster. As the bullpen is currently constructed, there are only five relievers Maddon appears to really trust (Pedro Strop, Brian Duensing, Carl Edwards Jr., Wade Davis and Mike Montgomery). Meanwhile, guys like Justin Wilson, Hector Rondon and Justin Grimm are attempting to right the ship before October. But it would be hard to see the Cubs expanding the bullpen to eight from that group of players. Maddon’s tepidness with his relievers seems to indicate a seven-man bullpen and six-man bench will be in order, which would be a good sign for Rivera and the Three-Headed Monster.
Though each of Contreras, Avila and Rivera have been critical to the Cubs’ success this year, the team still may not carry all three with them in the playoffs. A simple rotation of Contreras and Avila would likely do just fine. But, as Sunday’s ballgame against St. Louis demonstrated, having the ability to bring Rivera in late in the game gives Joe Maddon more flexibility – a trait he always seems to embrace in his roster construction. Rivera’s presence behind the plate in the 9th inning of Sunday’s game limited the Cardinals’ Tommy Pham from stealing second and advancing into scoring position.
Optimal flexibility is the same philosophy that led the Cubs to keep Contreras, Ross and Montero on the playoff roster last season and that worked out pretty well. Don’t be surprised if the Cubs go back to that well and find a Three-Headed Monster there this October.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports