Two Fridays ago at the annual Cubs Convention, Willson Contreras made headlines when he brashly prophesied, “I know I’m going to be better than [Yadier Molina and Buster Posey]. That’s my plan. That’s my [mindset].”
In other sports, such unabashed declarations of confidence in one’s own abilities are accepted, even lauded. But the traditionalist world of baseball—a world in which flipping a bat too dramatically can stir up controversy—tends to have a love-hate relationship with players who are outspoken, who refuse to fall in line and follow the litany of unwritten rules.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Contreras’s comments (which weren’t even the most headline-grabbing comments he made at this year’s convention) drew the ire of veteran backstop Yadier Molina, who fired back on Instagram, posting a picture of himself, Posey, and Royals catcher Salvador Perez with a caption that read (and this is a loose translation), “respect the ranks, young’un.”
There’s little doubt that Posey and Molina are the prima facie “greatest catchers of this generation.” But the boldness of Contreras’s does raise a few interesting questions:
How close is Contreras to being in the Posey/Molina echelon? And what would it take for him to get there?
While evaluating many aspects of catcher performance is still tricky, some of the metrics available at Baseball Prospectus and elsewhere allow us to compare Contreras’s brief stint in MLB with those of Posey and Molina in a few important areas: controlling the running game, pitch framing, and hitting.
Controlling the Running Game
Willson Contreras allowed an MLB-high 61 stolen bases last year. On the surface, that’s… not great. However, a good chunk of the blame should be attributed not to Contreras, but to his pitchers’ inability to hold runners. Baseball Prospectus’ Takeoff Rate Above Average measures how likely opposing teams are to attempt a steal against an opposing pitcher. Last year, the Cubs’ staff had a TRAA of 1.49, the worst rate in MLB; for context, the next-worst staff, the Brewers, posted a 0.90 TRAA, and no other staff exceeded 0.70. In other words, teams could not wait to tear up the base paths on Cubs’ pitchers, which perhaps made Contreras look less capable than he actually is at controlling the running game.
After all, it’s not like Contreras is lacking in raw athleticism. This is the same catcher who led MLB with seven pickoffs, whose 87.2 mph on “max-effort” throws in 2017 ranked second in MLB (per Statcast data), whose average “pop time” (the time between a catcher receiving a pitch and an infielder receiving his throw) also ranked second-best in MLB last year (again, per Statcast).
Baseball Prospectus’ Swipe Rate Above Average metric, which attempts to account for factors outside of the catcher’s control (i.e. pitchers who pick off a batter once every four or five years), offers a solution. However, the metric reveals only mixed results for Contreras. In limited time in 2016, he ranked 17th (of 63 qualified catchers) in SRAA; in 2017, he dipped to 41st (of 62 qualifiers).
The unfortunate truth is that, as long as the Cubs’ staff struggles to hold base runners—and for what it’s worth, Yu Darvish allowed more stolen bases (20) than Jon Lester or Jake Arrieta last year—Contreras’s true talent level, in terms of controlling the running game, will remain murky.
In 2016, under the tutelage of one elite pitch framer in Miguel Montero (top 10 in MLB in Called Strikes Above Average in each year since 2015) and one formerly elite framer in David Ross (four straight top-five finishes in CSAA from 2008 to 2011), it appeared that Willson Contreras was being groomed to be an excellent strike stealer. That year, he managed to save 4.3 runs through framing, a more-than-respectable mark for a rookie with limited time behind the dish.
Last season, the wheels fell off. In the absence of Montero and Ross, Contreras actively hurt the Cubs in the pitch framing department, costing them 6.3 runs, a figure that ranked 98th out of 110 catchers in MLB.
Now, catchers can get better at framing, and when they do, it tends to stick.
But when you compare Contreras’s pitch framing numbers to those of Posey (average of 13.1 framing runs per season since 2010) and Molina (average of 11 framing runs per season since 2004), it’s clear Willson has some ground to make up.
Ah, now we’re talking.
Since homering in his first big-league at-bat, Contreras has been one of the elite hitters in the game at the catcher position. Since being called up from Triple-A Iowa on June 17, 2016, he’s one of two catchers (along with Gary Sanchez) to hit 33 homers and drive in 109 runs. His .302 true average in 2016 ranked third-best among catchers, and his identical .302 true average in 2017 ranked fifth.
In the hitting department, Contreras is quickly positioning himself to be considered among the best at the position for a long, long time.
There is room to grow, however. Contreras’s biggest deficiency, at least if we’re comparing him to Posey and Molina, is plate discipline. His 23.2% strikeout rate in his first two years is roughly double what Posey (12.0%) and Molina (9.8%) have posted for their entire careers.
And while he made negligible improvements in this category last year, namely in his ability to limit his chasing pitches outside the strike zone (34.7 O-Swing% in 2016, 30.8 O-Swing% in 2017), nothing indicates that he’s on the path to being as discerning a hitter as Posey or Molina. While Contreras has a career 69.1% career contact rate, neither Posey nor Molina have fallen below 80.0% contact in any full season in the bigs.
The tradeoff, of course, is that Contreras has, just 711 plate appearances into his big-league career, already displayed more raw power than Posey or Molina ever have. Contreras’s .223 isolated power in 2017 eclipses the career highs of Posey (.214) and Molina (.186). But while this certainly provides reason for optimism, we may just need to hold our horses a bit.
Willson Contreras’s career HR/FB rate is 25.0%. This, my friends, is not sustainable, unless maybe your name is Giancarlo Stanton, whose career 26.7% HR/FB rate just barely tops Contreras’s. And while Contreras ranks eighth in MLB in HR/FB rate since 2016 (min. 700 PA), he’s tied for 118th (per Statcast data) in average distance when he puts the ball in the air, at 293 feet. One of the players he’s tied with? Yadier Molina.
To top it off, Contreras’s 53.7% ground ball rate is the highest of any catcher since 2016 (min. 700 PA). No other hitter since 2016 has an isolated power above .188 with a ground ball rate as high as Contreras’s, and his isolated power is all the way up at .216. Barring a radical change in approach, the odds of maintaining this type of power with a ground ball rate that high are slim.
So, Willson Contreras is not Buster Posey or Yadier Molina. At least not yet. And he admitted as much, on Twitter, in response to the backlash he received over his initial comments. But he’s only 25. And he’s only been playing catcher since 2011. And he’s immensely talented.
If there is any chance that he ends his career as the greatest catcher of his generation, the important thing is that instead of “respecting the ranks,” he said the words. And he believes them.