Projecting Willson Contreras

Just last week, the Cubs added another productive asset to their already stacked lineup when they called up outfielder Albert Almora. Today, they fortified their juggernaut offense even further by summoning slugging catcher Willson Contreras. Contreras has absolutely destroyed the Pacific Coast League this year. In 55 Triple-A games, he was slashing .353/.442/.593.

Contreras has demonstrated an exceptional combination of contact and power in Triple-A this year. He’s struck out just 13% of the time, yet has also managed to put up a .240 ISO. Some of that has to do with his playing in the PCL, where homers are very common. But a lot of it doesn’t: On a per plate appearance basis, he hit significantly more singles, doubles, triples and home runs than the typical PCL hitter. As if that weren’t enough, he also drew walks and even stole four bases. From a hitting perspective, he did it all.

Contreras’ minor league numbers are gaudy, and they’re even more impressive considering he plays catcher — arguably the most premium defensive position on the diamond. The 24-year-old’s defensive position goes a long way toward pushing his KATOH forecast to near-elite levels. KATOH doesn’t explicitly account for players’ ability at their current position, which sometimes leads it to overrate “catchers” who have very little chance of sticking behind the plate. That’s almost certainly not the case with Contreras, however, as most think he’ll be fine at catcher.

Heading into the year, KATOH ranked Contreras No. 72 on its top 100 list with a projected 4.2 WAR over the next six seasons. KATOH really liked what Contreras did in 2015, but was a tad hesitant due to Contreras’ unremarkable pre-2015 track record — notably, his .242/.320/.359 showing in 2014. But now that he’s doubled down on his strong 2015 campaign, KATOH’s fully on board. Adding his 2016 numbers into the mix, Contreras’ projection jumps all the way up to 9.3 WAR. That puts him in top 15 prospect territory.

To put some faces to Contreras’ statistical profile, let’s go ahead and generate some statistical comps for the slugging catcher. I calculated a weighted Mahalanobis Distance between Contreras’ Double-A and Triple-A numbers since the start of 2015 and every season at those levels since 1990 in which a catcher recorded at least 400 plate appearances. In the table below, you’ll find the 10 most similar seasons, ranked from most to least similar. The WAR totals refer to each player’s first six seasons in the major leagues.

Willson Contreras’ Mahalanobis Comps
Rank Name Proj. WAR Actual WAR
1 Mitch Meluskey 8.0 2.4
2 John Jaso 7.6 6.2
3 Jonathan Lucroy 8.1 16.3
4 Jeff Clement 7.2 0.0
5 Robert Fick 6.5 5.1
6 Russell Martin 10.1 18.4
7 Darrin Fletcher 6.3 4.9
8 Chris Snyder 7.1 5.1
9 Jayson Werth 10.1 7.2
10 Javy Lopez 12.0 13.8

This list backs up Contreras’ strong KATOH forecast. Even some of the guys who weren’t really cut out to catch — Jaso, Fick and Werth — wound up having solid careers due to their offensive prowess. The only real disappointments here are Meluskey and Clement. Meleuskey’s career was derailed by injuries after a strong rookie season, while Clement could neither stick at catcher nor hit enough to play first.

Your guess is as good as mine as to how often Joe Maddon plans to deploy his new slugger. Contreras will likely pry some at-bats from incumbent Miguel Montero, who has put up just a 78 wRC+ this year, and only reached 500 plate appearances once in the three seasons prior to 2016. But given Montero’s track record of success, it isn’t clear the Cubs will (or should) relegate him to a reserve role. In any case, there’s no doubt Contreras’ bat is ready for the big leagues, and there’s no doubt the Cubs are a better team with him on their roster. Not that they need much help.

Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. He's also on the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell None of the views expressed in his articles reflect those of his daytime employer.

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Clement was also injured and a Mariner, the organization where high draft picks go to die.