Willson Contreras is in select company. Through his first three seasons in the Cubs system, he played almost exclusively third base, not suiting up behind the plate until 2012, when he was in Low-A. Now, as he enters his third season in the majors, he has become not only a steady and reliable presence in the lineup, but also a defensively strong backstop as well. And there's also evidence that he is growing as a leader.
All of these together make for an enviable and rare kind of player; one who contributes and makes the team better in all three of those importance facets: with the plate, with the glove, and with the spirit. In fact, Contreras is already one of the best catchers in baseball.
The first facet is easy. Since debuting in 2016, Contreras has amassed 5.4 fWAR in only 193 games. From 2016 to 2017, his K% dropped, his ISO went up, and he kept his batting average and OBP reasonably steady despite a 20-point drop in BABIP. Along with that, his rate of soft contact went down by nearly a full percentage point, and he drove the ball into the air more often than on the ground, a part of what contributed to the spike in ISO.
There are still some spots for growth on offense -- very normal for a 25-year-old who has not yet played two full seasons in the majors -- as Contreras pulled the ball more often in 2017 than the previous year, and he didn't see quite as many pitches per plate appearance this past season. It wasn't a dramatic dip; he went from 3.96 to 3.77, and his walk rate went up anyway, so that is probably of marginal concern. Contreras also hit the ball to the opposite field less often, something Joe Maddon has said he likes to see in young hitters as it suggests that they are waiting on the ball and seeing it better.
In all, however, Contreras a quality hitter, and not just for a catcher. He was used in every spot in the order in 2017, but he is best in the fourth spot, behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. He hit .307 batting cleanup and 13 of his 21 home runs came in that spot in the order.
On defense, the picture is less clear, though still encouraging. As we have discussed here recently when examining Ian Happ and Albert Almora, Jr. as centerfielders, it takes several years of defensive data to be reliable. That acknowledged, there is reason to feel good about Contreras the defender. He has shown off his flexibility in spending time in the outfield, especially in 2016, as well as a handful of innings at first base. But behind the plate, he posted a 7 DRS (defensive runs saved) last season, which puts him somewhere between above average and great, according to Fangraphs' scale. Contreras is also valued for his ability to control the running game; he had 6 rSB last season (rSB measures a catcher's ability to prevent stolen bases by throwing runners out and preventing them from running in the first place; the 6 here means he is that many stolen bases above average). His arm strength impressed Jon Lester last spring, and he earned the respect of the staff as a whole. Finally, he converted 41% of the unlikely plays he encountered (those given a 10-40% chance of completion), and 13.9% of the remote (those given a 1-10% chance).
The last piece is his quality of leadership. In September, I wrote briefly about the suspension Contreras was issued during a joint protest with John Lackey of a call in a game against the Cardinals. In the moment, there was justifiable reason to blame Contreras for losing his temper, but another way of looking at it is that he was sticking up for his pitcher, something that teams crave from their catchers. Perhaps the way he carried out that defense could have used some polishing, but in the heat of the moment with the end of the season just weeks away, I still think he can be forgiven for throwing his mask to the ground.
When we step away a bit from this incident, it can be seen as an example of what Contreras can provide for his pitching staff. He can control the running game effectively and will not shy way from confronting a bad call or bad strike zone. And that, years ago, the Cubs development staff thought him capable of converting to catcher while in Low-A ball speaks to what they saw in him. He learned the position at an already competitive level of the minors and had mastered it well enough to not only start in the majors just a few years later, but excel at the most demanding position in the game at the highest level.
What makes Contreras so special goes a little beyond this because not only is he good, he is one of the best catchers in baseball right now. At the plate, he was fourth among MLB catchers in 2017 in wRC+ and ISO, and fifth in fWAR. On defense, he was tied for fifth in DRS, second in rSB, and second in the league in DEF, the Fangraphs statistic that combines "value relative to positional average (fielding runs) and positional value relative to other positions (positional adjustment)". His quality of leadership is hard to compare across the league, but the value to his teammates has already been demonstrated in many ways.
It was already commonly known that Contreras was a good catcher, but maybe not how good, and maybe not how good he was compared to his counterparts around the league. He has not yet played 200 games in the majors, but it can already be argued that he is among the best catchers in baseball.