When Willson Contreras began to shoot up prospects lists last year, it wasn’t because of his defense. The now-24-year-old third baseman-turned-catcher was a fringe prospect who had never cracked a top-100 list until he came out of nowhere to slash .333/.413/.478 in Double-A last season — his fourth year spent behind the dish. Contreras’ breakout at the plate began earning him recognition from scouts, as Baseball America, ESPN, Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com all ranked Contreras as a top-75 prospect coming into this season. Regarding his work behind the dish, however, questions remained.
BP’s Christopher Crawford called Contreras a “work in progress” behind the plate in this year’s preseason scouting report, adding that “receiving is the big focus point right now, as he’s still learning how to frame pitches and call games.” Baseball America made note of Contreras’ “inconsistent receiving and blocking skills that need more development.” Most every scouting report on Contreras echoed a similar sentiment: great athleticism for a catcher, cannon for an arm, but the receiving and blocking needed work. Receiving is far and away the most important defensive skill for a catcher to possess, and so Contreras’ development (or lack thereof) in this area would go a long way toward determining his long-term value, or even future, behind the plate.
Just as Contreras began earning prospect consideration not for his defense, but for his bat, he found a steady role in the majors for the same reason. He debuted with the Cubs on June 17, joining a roster that already featured two catchers in Miguel Montero and David Ross, each of whom carry strong defensive reputations but project as well below-average hitters. The Cubs were understandably noncommittal about giving Contreras regular catching time at first, instead allowing him to occasionally catch John Lackey, Kyle Hendricks, and Jason Hammel, while keeping his bat in the lineup by deploying him in left field. Jon Lester continued to be caught by Ross, his longtime batterymate. Staff ace Jake Arrieta was off limits, too; he worked with Montero.
And that’s how it went for two months until last night, when something changed. Arrieta took the mound, and Contreras suited up behind the dish. Montero looked on from the dugout bench. It represented a changing of the guard in Chicago, with Contreras shedding his apprentice role beneath Montero and emerging as the team’s primary catcher. And not for a one-off. Manager Joe Maddon told reporters before the game that “moving forward, I thought it would be a good idea to get it done right now,” insinuating this is something the team consciously wanted to get out ahead of prior to the postseason.
And for good reason. Despite the scouting reports, the numbers suggest not only that Contreras has held his own defensively with the gear on, but that he’s been a surprisingly valuable asset. The following numbers will come from Baseball Prospectus’ ultra-sophisticated catcher-defense model, looking at the 67 catchers with at least 1,000 framing chances this season, with everyone’s numbers prorated to the same scale to adjust for differences in playing time:
- Framing: +16.2 runs per 1,000 innings, ranked ninth of 67
- Blocking: +0.5 runs, sixth of 67
- Throwing: +0.9 runs, 19th of 67
- Total defense: +17.6 runs, eighth of 67
On a per-inning scale, Contreras has been plus across the board defensively, with his two perceived areas of weakness (his framing and blocking) actually grading as his two biggest strengths. He’s caught like a top-10 catcher in baseball, and has actually graded as more valuable behind the dish than his veteran, defensive-minded counterparts.
And, I know what you’re thinking: Contreras has only caught in 34 games, and only started 23, the sample is too small! However, BP has found that their framing metric stabilizes astoundingly quickly; even in a sample that represents 20% of a full season, like Contreras’ current sample, the correlation to end-of-season numbers is a robust 0.80 or higher. We can confidently say already that Contreras has displayed a believable skill in his framing.
In his first start catching Arrieta, Contreras stole him an outside strike in the fourth to even the count at 2-2:
And a low one in the third to get Arrieta a first-pitch strike:
General manager Jed Hoyer said last month that Contreras “keeps getting better with his framing.” Maddon noted yesterday how Contreras is “actually blocking and receiving the ball better.” For fun, I went back and watched some video of Contreras’ first start in Double-A last year, and grabbed the first borderline pitch I found:
The thing I immediately noticed was the stance. He used to be more upright in the minors; now, in the majors, his rear is much closer to the dirt, in theory providing more balance the ability to receive the low pitch. You also notice the technique: Contreras jabs at the outside pitch in the minors, and his shoulders and head carries his momentum away from the plate as he receives the pitch. In our first clip from the majors above, Contreras is totally quiet. In the second, there’s movement, but the movement isn’t taking him away from the plate.
There was some concern in having Contreras catch Arrieta that Arrieta’s extreme movement on his breaking pitches could cause for some trouble. Arrieta threw three breaking or offspeed pitches in the dirt:
Contreras also made sure no one forgot about the tool long believed to be his greatest asset as a catcher:
Now, we can’t ignore this: Contreras had two passed balls on Thursday. And Arrieta walked seven. The two will still have to get familiar with one another, and game-calling, alongside framing and blocking, is the other area of Contreras’ game about which scouts had concerns. But Contreras seems to have made drastic improvements in the framing, the blocking, and for what it’s worth, Lackey says Contreras is “getting way better” at the game-calling side of things, saying there’s “not as much shaking” between the two now. Hammel says Contreras has “gotten better every start that I’ve worked with him, with the game-calling.” Hendricks recently gave Contreras’ work behind the dish “huge praise.” They’re teammates — of course they’re not going to rip Contreras — but nobody forced them to all comment on Contreras’ developments in recent weeks, and Contreras’ start with Arrieta on the mound only furthers the notion that the Cubs are legitimately comfortable with him as an everyday catching option.
Which bodes well not only for his future in the long term, but the Cubs’ future in the short term. If Contreras can catch four of the five starters confidently, with Ross continuing to handle Lester, that would allow the Cubs to leave Montero off the postseason roster, going with a more traditional two-catcher alignment that could afford the unique skillset of a Chris Coghlan or Albert Almora a spot in the playoffs.
This is precisely what the Cubs wanted to see. Contreras has hit well for a left fielder, with a 115 wRC+, and he’s hit exceptionally for a catcher. More importantly, though, is that he’s turned himself into a true catcher. The quotes suggest it. The numbers back it up. Now, he’s being rewarded for his developments, and both Contreras and the Cubs are better off.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.