The Passion (and growth) of Willson Contreras

We all saw the play last night and we've all been talking about it since.  The Cubs won the game in large part because of that seemingly unquenchable fire that burns inside of Willson Contreras-- or outside of him, if you took Joe Maddon's words literally yesterday,

We all know which play Maddon was referring to.  It was that fearless, all out break for the plate that ended up being the difference in the Cubs one run win.  That passionate play certainly was not surprising to most of us.  It wasn't anything we haven't seen before.  It was pure Willson Contreras.  It's who he has always been.

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But there was another play that I remember from that game, one that maybe you've already forgotten,  That's a good thing, though.  But more on that later.  To truly appreciate that last important play -- that other one you may have missed, we have to go back and look back on the journey from the very beginning...

I've told this story in the past, back when I was trying to alert everyone to a kid named Willson Contreras.  Back before he was even a prospect.  Back when Contreras as a catcher was still in the experimental phase.

The wife and I used to visit Arizona often before we lived here.   We enjoy the sunny weather and we have family in the area.  There is also baseball practically all year round.  Those are ultimately the reasons we decided to move here.

During one such visit in 2012 we came out to see instructional league play, then at Fitch Park.  I wasn't the expert or the regular visitor I am now.  We showed up on a date in which there was no game and so we meandered around the grounds looking for something interesting to watch.

It didn't take us long to find it.

We wandered over to where the catchers were doing drills.  In this particular instance, they were fielding bunts and then responding to last second commands on which base to throw to.  So a coach would roll out a "bunt" and then yell, "two, two, two!"  Or "three, three, three!!" Or...well, you get the picture.

In the world of baseball such drills are common and mundane.  They are part of the necessary grind of becoming a good, fundamentally sound baseball player.  However, as much as the instructors try, it is nearly impossible to simulate game speed or adrenaline.

Unless you happen to be Willson Contreras, that is.

Today I can tell each catcher by their build, the way they personalize their attire (glove, wristbands, shoes, socks, etc,), mechanics, even their gait and mannerisms.  Of course now, they also have their names on the back of their jerseys so it no longer much of a challenge.  Back then, however, it was rather anonymous.  I was not yet a regular and there was no easy way to identify each catcher.  They all wore masks, they were of roughly the same build, and I didn't even know Arizona Phil well enough then to pick his brain on who's who.

Yet, there was one catcher who still stood out.  He exploded from his crouch and jumped out of the chute as if someone lit a fire under him.  He threw rockets to each base as if there was an imaginary runner out there taunting him, daring the young catcher to throw him out.  If these were just drills, somebody forgot to tell this kid.

I stood there so transfixed and waiting for his turn to come up again that I hadn't noticed the coach who was standing next to me for who knows how long.  After his next turn came up and another cat-like pounce on the bunt and a bullet to second base, I turned to the coach and asked,

"Who is that guy?"

(Had I had my wits about me, I would have asked, "Who was that masked man?", but I digress.)

Before uttering his response, the coach just smiled, as if acknowledging that he was seeing exactly what I was seeing and perhaps somewhat pleased that there was someone else there to appreciate it with him.

"Willson Contreras", he said.

I'd like to tell you I dropped a pearl of my amateur baseball scouting wisdom on this coach but all that came out was a half-whispered, "Wow".

You can't make too much of such drills to evaluate anyone anyway and if I had, I might have noticed that the arm action was too long or maybe something about his footwork...but really none of that mattered because those are the kinds of things that can be fixed.  What mattered was the things that could not be taught, that incredible athleticism and unbridled passion with which he played on rep after rep after rep.  The energy seemed boundless.

wilson-contreras-maskI did make a mental note of it all and as luck should have it, Contreras would be following us back to Chicago.  The Cubs had just signed on to have the Kane County Cougars as their affiliate.  We bought season tickets and attended every game we could.  There were quite a few future major league ballplayers on that team: Albert Almora, Jeimer Candelario, Dan Vogelbach, Marco Hernandez, Rob Zastryzny, Felix Pena, Andrew MccKirahan, and, of course, Willson Contreras.

Contreras still managed to find ways to stand out, though not always for the right reasons.  I remember him walking halfway out to the pitcher's mound to light shortstop Marco Hernandez up for his lack of effort on a short-hop throw to second -- on a practice throw during the warm-ups between innings.

There was also the time when he blew up Twins prospect Niko Goodrum on a play at the plate.  Goodrum was a big kid at 6'3" 200 lbs. with good speed, so he came around 3rd base with a whole lot of momentum.  That momentum was stopped in an instant as Contreras, just looking to hold his ground and hold on to the baseball, braced himself as Goodrum crashed face first into those rock solid forearms.  Goodrum collapsed to the ground in a heap and had to be revived with smelling salts.

Contreras probably didn't make a lot of friends on the other teams back then but that was not really his concern.  Some even accused him of being a dirty player, butcontreras-unmask that's just not who he was.  You were just as likely to find Contreras having fun or joking around before and after the game.  Some of our favorite early photos was of Contreras singing and dancing to one of his favorite songs by the bullpen on one of his off days.

But on the field was different.  He just played the game with such competitive fire, such passion to win not just the game, but to come out on top on every single play.  My friend Kris Contreras (no relation) who has gotten to know Willson well, said that he took every runner, every attempt to advance a base, personally.

That wasn't always a good thing, however.  Like his teammate then and now, Albert Almora, Contreras didn't believe there was a play he could not make.  The result was a lot of ill-advised throws and quite a few unforced, unnecessary errors.

In the words of his manger Mark Johnson from an interview two years ago, Contreras was sometimes "too passionate".  Not that you can ever have too much passion, but as Johnson went on to explain, Contreras had to learn when there was a play to be made and when it was best to maybe stick that ball in your pocket and learn to live for another play.

And so when Willson Contreras made that daring dash to the plate to score an all important run last night, it was exciting but not surprising to anyone who has followed him closely.  It was bold.  It was competitive.  It was passionate. It was Willson Contreras.

But lost in all the excitement you may have failed to notice another play.  There was a pitch that bounced to the plate in the 9th with a runner on first and Contreras managed to block it enough to where it traveled just a short distance away from him.  He pounced on it quickly but the runner, Freddy Galvis, has pretty good speed and got himself a good jump.

Contreras put the ball in his pocket and conceded the base rather than risk a throw on a play that could not be made.  The runner ended up being stranded there and the Cubs won the game.

You can be excused if you forgot about that little play. In fact, it's better that you did.  That's the kind of play  that used to draw Contreras the wrong kind of attention.   So because he did not try to make that play in the 9th, we all remember what we should be remembering -- that great baserunning play he did make in the 6th.

And while that passion, that desire to win and make plays, still burns inside as it always has, it was a play Contreras chose not to make that may have been equally important for him and the Cubs.

That is Willson Contreras.

And he has come a long way since those days at Fitch Park and Kane County.

 

 

 

 

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  • Good stuff, John!

  • In reply to lblegacy:

    Thank you!

  • And 3B coach Gary Jones must have seen Willson's hair on fire as he was waving Willson home from the get go!

    And, Somewhere, Wavin' Wendell Kim (RIP) got a big smile on his face during last night's 6th inning.

  • In reply to DropThePuck:

    Haha! Agreed on all counts.

  • speaking of fire..why does it seems like every time Grim comes in this year he begins starting one? We got out of it again...but ..he is worrying me.

  • In reply to CubsFaninNC:

    That's just kind of who he is, Kind of like Strop. They have stuff with so much movement, it isn't always easy to command. They're more good than bad and it's just reality. Not everyone can be Wade Davis. But then again, not everyone has the swing and miss, shut down stuff of Grimm and Strop when they're going well.

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    In reply to CubsFaninNC:

    I choose to look at relievers as similar to hitters. They often go in streaks. There were stretches last year where I was nervous to see Strop, Edwards, Grimm come in the game. There were other times where I was confident that everything would be fine because they were pitching.

    Lately Maddon has used Grimm in a "mop-up" role as he tries to get a handle on things with this game being the exception to that.

  • I remember the play in the 9th... because I was irritated that Willson didn't block the ball. No data to back this up, but he seems awful at blocking pitches in the dirt.

    Anyway... I think he's going to win an MVP one day.

  • In reply to Kramerica20:

    He's pretty good at it, he's so agile back there, but he has had a bad streak lately.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    You're probably right. I do remember last year thinking he was great at it.
    Me and my fickle fandom

  • In reply to Kramerica20:

    It will probably take him a while to be consistent. Talent there, sometimes has to slow things down back there.

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    Again, another great article John. I love Willson's eagerness and aggressiveness. A perfect or nearly perfect throw would have got him last night but he took the chance and never stopped running. I love his running to 1st hard every time, and how he's learning when Not to do something.
    We really have a core here and he's another one to watch for the next 5 to 10 years.

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    Thanks. It still feels like Contreras is scratching the surface.

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    In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    And the learning when NOT to do something is experience. I wouldn't be surprised if someone, maybe even Maddon, talked to him after the game about that "non-throw."

    It is easy to forget just how young these guys are. We have been following them for about 5 years in John's--and some others here--case.

    I am too young to have seen Johnny Bench so for me the gold standard at catcher is Yadier Molina. He had a lot of that passion for baseball too. When he was young he made a lot of the same aggressive mistakes that Contreras makes. But he can be coached. And he can be taught. And he can learn.

  • Great article as usual John.

    It makes me wonder about who else might be right about the experience level where you saw Wilson playing in AZ - who we just might be saying exactly the same things in 3-4 seasons.

    The Cubs just might be needing a 'new' 3B, 1B, 2B or SS about then - depending on whom among Bryant, Rizzo, Baez, Schwarber or Russell that the Cubs trade about the time they all are heading for Arbitration or Free Agency. It'll just be too expensive to keep them all and we've known that for years - if they all developed.

    And that sort of as yet unpolished gem of a position player is what we'll need about then. I look forward to seeing you write a similar article about 'that kid' at that time as you just did about Wilson.

  • The ball doesn't hit the mound, take the weird hop and Willy is dead to rights - this column takes a whole different tone. More on the "he's out of control, too young, etc."

    Love the enthusiasm and commitment - but wish some Cub fans wouldn't be so hard mistakes from Javy, Willy, and others unless it becomes consistent.

  • In reply to TheCHISportsFan:

    I agree, of course, I'm more patient than most fans.

    Interesting to note that it was Galvis who chunked the throw home into the pitcher's mound and Galvis who took the extra base on the play in which Willson didn't make the ill-advised throw.

    Perhaps, his good fortune in the 6th inning (and the terrible throw by Galvis) helped keep in fresh in Willson's mind to stick that one in his pocket! ;-)

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    What a wonderful flow this article had. A great, informative, and yet easy read. Great work as usual.

    Only if Willson could have been the hero in the 12th, it would have made the timing of this article unbelievable !

  • Great read, John. Always appreciate your insights on the big league team and players. Love Contreras and delighted to see Miggy tearing it up.

    Any thoughts on Lackey and the need to make a big trade for another pitcher? I know, it's too early to make judgments. But it seems we're gonna need one more good starter for the playoffs. My confidence in Lackey was lacking last October. Much less projecting to next October.

  • Fine writing John. I look forward to and enjoy these in a Mike Royko vein. They're my favorites. Thanks.

  • Love this article. You can't get this kind of insight on what drives a player anywhere else.

  • In reply to seattlecub:

    Thank you! Appreciate that very much. I do my best to try to paint pictures when I write and I hope I did that here.

  • Willson is spark plug even with this young team of high energy guys like Javy and Albert. He manages to stay in control and patient at the plate. He will make a few hustle mistakes, but not often.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    He is getting so much better with the control. Wasn't always there but he is getting there. But you don't ever want him to lose that passion either.

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    Great stuff, John.

    I've been reading your minors recaps long enough to remember you talking about how interesting Contreras was even as he was still pretty raw defensively and putting up mediocre numbers at the lowest levels of the system. It's amazing that things turned out the way they have for him.

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    You were the first John. You were on him like white on rice. I know you're a humble dude, but when big time baseball guys who specialize in prospects spoke of the Cubs system and their catcher situation they never mentioned Willson. Just want to let you know I never forgot that and in my eyes, you'll always be the best resource to the Cubs prospect situation.

  • In reply to Johnny Hatelak:

    Thank you, Johnny. I hope that in some way it helped people see how important that combination of athleticism, desire, and work ethich was. Not the Cubs FO, because I think they've always valued that, but just prospect evaluation in general. Always bet on athletes who care as much as Contreras does.

  • In reply to Johnny Hatelak:

    Yep! Not only was John way out ahead of the pack on Willson, but he was talking up and informing us all about the importance placed on player make-up in the Cubs evaluation process.

    John, you've certainly educated me and changed what I look for and what I value in a prospect, and I've been following them as closely as possible for 25 years. (It's gotten a lot easier since the internet and easier still since Cubs Den's presence on it...)

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    John, I like your story of "finding" Contreras (I always have). But I am happy you didn't drop a "pearl of scouting wisdom" on the coach. Sometimes, I think, they are probably sick of fans less knowledgeable than you trying to show how "smart" they are. Your "Wow" was probably as poignant a commentary as anything.

    A couple of years ago I was directing a play. In it a wife was told her husband had been killed. The script called for her to say "NO!!!" and she, as a professional actress, delivered it with passion--and volume. One night we had a rehearsal in a semi-public area and it was getting late (around 10P). Anyway, we were asked to "keep it down." I was curious how she would respond in that scene since she was a firm believer in the "you will perform the way that you practice." Well, she whispered, with intensity, "no." I almost fell out of my chair. I told her during "notes" after the rehearsal, "Ditch the yell. The whisper actually had more passion."

    My point is that sometimes we assume that we will really "impress" people by showing them what we know. I am guessing that that coach understood what your "Wow" meant. As you said, if there were any mechanical problems those things could be fixed. But you can't teach a kid to show passion like you described on a field in Arizona, a million miles from Wrigley Field, one morning with no adrenaline from cheering fans, MLB uniforms, etc. doing routine catching drills just trying to teach them to be fundamentally strong.

  • Great article John. Those practice drills do show a lot about a player.

  • Great Article John. Thanks for all you do. Onward!

  • did not realize I had that much power...sorry Mr. Grimm. Who's next?

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