Year in Review:
Few Cubs were able to stand out in 2017 in the way that Willson Contreras did. Not only did Contreras take his first full season at the big league level and run with it, having unofficially seized the starting catching gig from Miguel Montero in the previous year, but he may have established himself as one of the very elite catchers in all of baseball. When you consider the skill set presented on both sides of the ball, it’s very possible that there are only a couple of names in front of him at the position at this point.
There wasn’t much disparity between Willson’s half-year in 2016 and his production throughout the 2017 season. Among the 14 backstops that logged 400 or more plate appearances in 2017, Contreras ranked fourth in average (.276), second in on-base percentage (.356), and fourth in wRC+ (121), as well as second in TAv (.302). His ISO, at .223, also ranked fourth among that group. Offensively, there’s not a lot of starters behind the plate that can hold a candle to what Willson can do with the stick. Of course, you’d like to see the contact rate improve, as his mark that sat at about 72 percent ranked just 12th out of the 14. It’ll also be interesting to see the type of production he turned in if he were to get off to a stronger start. He hit only .242 and reached base at a clip barely over .300 in April, with FanGraphs posting a wRC+ of only 83 for him that month. Beyond that, though, when he was healthy, he was phenomenal offensively, including park-adjusted offensive figures of 161 in July and 198 in August.
Defensively, Willson Contreras continued to make strides behind the plate. While you’d like to see his framing improve moving forward, he experienced increases in Errant Pitches Above Average (-.003 to -.001) and Swipe Rate Above Average (-.039 to .022). We saw Contreras showcase his arm and demonstrate his blocking skills throughout the season. There’s still some development to go, but the fact that he’s shown steady improvement while possessing the arm that he does back there is certainly something that indicates big things are on the horizon in his defensive game. Potentially working with someone like Rene Rivera, should the Cubs choose to bring him back, could also aid him in that development.
Overall, though, there aren’t many players that can stake their name on the type of well-rounded game that we’re starting to see from Willson Contreras at the catching position. He’s surpassed the likes of Yadier Molina within the division, and now could set his sights on someone like Buster Posey in a more general sense.
What we’ve seen from Contreras in what has essentially been a year-and-a-half of big league action really should set the stage for what to expect from him moving forward. Unlike some other position players, Contreras doesn’t find his future in any sort of question. He’s more like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant in that regard. The Cubs consider him an immensely valuable asset and will likely treat him as such for the foreseeable future.
For Willson, it’s about shoring up those elements of his game that could use the refinement. From an offensive standpoint, that’s the contact rate and improving the approach a bit. His walk rate, at 10.5 percent, is very respectable, but you’d like to see the punchout rate come down from that 22.9 percent mark that he posted in 2017. And obviously the hope is that the 13.5 percent whiff rate will also come down. We’ve seen Contreras succumb to poor decision-making late in at-bats, susceptible to swinging at pitches way out of the strike zone. That’s definitely an area to be improved moving forward. From there, it’s a matter of continuing to improve on the defensive side. Contreras compensates for a lot with his arm, but if he could continue to demonstrate development on the framing side, the Cubs are going to have a two-way monster on their hands, more than has already been indicated to this point.
Lead photo courtesy Jim Young—USA Today Sports