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Willson Contreras is One of the Best Catchers in Baseball

Willson Contreras is One of the Best Catchers in Baseball

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.

Filed under: Cubs

Tags: Willson Contreras

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  • I know a little off topic but why is everyone in a rush to get almora and happ out of Chicago? Both high first round picks that have shown no signs of being busts. Let them both play this year and see what you got. Yes I ageee yelich would be nice but at what cost when you have two players that both could be awesome as well? Thanks

  • In reply to Jjdgolf:

    I don't think anyone is in a hurry to trade either, but they lack big trade pieces in the minors so anyone interested in proposing a package for a proven MLB player has to include players off the Cubs current roster and these two are the most expendable/easiest to move.

  • Completely in alignment with your position. There is not another catcher in baseball I take over him. I would also say Wilson is the only other player who is untouchable not named Bryant.

  • In reply to rbrucato:

    And of course Rizzo and Baez!!!!!!!! both are very untouchable

  • In reply to cubbie forever:

    My personal view is either of those two could go in the right deal. Would I do that? Nope. I don’t believe the Cubs would even listen in on Bryant or Contreras.

  • In reply to cubbie forever:

    Baez is available in the right trade

  • In reply to WaitUntilNextYear:

    No he isn't. The Cubs are not gonna move any of the talented young players they have. You can count on it.

  • In reply to WaitUntilNextYear:

    Baez is untouchable. He plays electric defense, and we have no idea just how good he really is gonna be. He is so young, we have no idea what the ceiling is for him, He is gonna hit 35 home runs one of these seasons. The quick tags at 2b when he catches a ball from Contreres. Baez is a superstar in the making and the cubs know it. Absolutely "untouchable"

  • In reply to Holycow84:

    Baez has proven that he simply is too unreliable at the plate during critical times. He can just as easily hit .000 for the entire playoffs as he could hit .280 with very poor OBP. He is incredible on the defensive side of the ball. I'm not rushing this kid out of town, but if I can get some quality in return, he offers a LOT of value to other teams right now and I would consider it. Him and Schwarber would be the too players I would look closely at moving AT THE RIGHT PRICE of course.

  • In reply to INSaluki:

    Baez looks like the type of player who will improve as he gets older and as we've seen hi floor is an elite defender with pop in his bat. If you call Bryant, Rizzo and Contreras untouchable in a deal, then to me Schwarber and Baez are about a notch below. It would have to be the trade of a lifetime to even consider moving Baez. Russell I would move, for a couple of reasons. The first is I don't think he's ever going to reach his ceiling and I think his floor is a very good defender that doesn't hurt you with the bat. Baez is better, more electric player and while I don't think he's there yet I also think he could be a better SS than Russell. The second reason is more practical in that even if Russell improves to a very good offensive player (I think as far as him ever being great that the ship has sailed) both he and Bryant are represented by Scott Boras so an extension is unlikely while I think you might be able to lock Baez up in the not too distant future. I've said it before but if any of the young players go in trade my picks in order would be Happ first followed by Russell and then Almora. Not that I want to move those guys but to me the guys you named are likely far more valuable in the longer term.

  • Yea. He has surpassed Yadi Molina as the best in baseball.

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    In reply to mailmanrod:

    That's a bold statement. I'm not knocking Willson & I don't like Yadi because of Cards, but Yadi is the best catcher of the last decade.
    Can Contreras follow suit? I think so, but this needs atleast a few more years to compare.

  • In reply to Wrigley0923:

    He did say "one of" not "the". I would say he's the best catcher under 30 though.

  • In reply to TC154:

    I don't know about that. The yankees have a good one too but I like having Willson.

  • In reply to John57:

    Ultimately I don't think Sanchez will stick at catcher due to his defense, but he's a heck of a hitter. J.T. Realmuto would be my second best under thirty guy after Willson.

  • In reply to TC154:

    Well, I just took a look at Sanchez' defensive numbers for 2017 and they were quite good actually. He doesn't look real good back there to me but numbers don't lie. The national baseball media also talks about his defensive deficiencies quite often but who knows? I retract my original statement. It's certainly valuable to have a catcher that can hit like that.

  • In reply to TC154:

    I think Buster Posey is the best catcher in the MLB and has been for a few years now.

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    Agree....

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    In reply to Wrigley0923:

    Right now Yadi isn't the best catcher in baseball though. He's still fine. But he isn't at the top any more.

  • In reply to mailmanrod:

    Posey has won a rookie of the year, MVP, three world series, a gold glove, and a batting title (not many catchers win batting titles). He hit .320 last season with a .400 OBP and was essentially the only effective offensive player on the Giants (no protection). And for years, he has been consistently ranked as the best framer in the league.

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    In reply to mailmanrod:

    Depends. If I have the option of Willson or Yadi as Opening Day starter in 2018 I take Willson. But if given the choice between Willson Contreras 2018 and Yadier Molina ca. 2012 I take Yadi and laugh all the way to the bank.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    Molina in 2012 slashed .315/.373./.501
    Posey that year: .336/.408/.549. He also hit 24 HRs whereas Yadi hit 22. Posey also won the MVP, the batting title, and the World Series.
    You can have Yadi. I'll take the best catcher of the last 10 years.

  • In reply to Cubswin09:

    Agreed. I didn't see your Posey post above till I added my post. No doubt Posey has been the best catcher for at least the last 5 years in the MLB.

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    In reply to Cubswin09:

    You're right, Posey is better. I was comparing Yadi and Willson. Though, I agree, that wasn't clear.

  • WIllco is becoming an all-time favorite of mine. Great explanation of his ability in comparison to the league.
    We could see some special seasons coming from this young man.

  • Yeah Contreras is really something special. While he certainly can I'm prove the only area that really HAS to improve is framing. That's pretty extraordinary for a guy about to play in his age 26 season. I'm with rbrucato as well, Contreras and Bryant are the only true untouchables on this team, even some other guys would only be a hair below that lofty level.

  • In reply to TC154:

    I couldn't be more excited about Wilson's future and I don't doubt that he will be great. I agree that he has to improve in framing. I swear the cubs led the league in pitches right down the middle called balls. An example is the pitch that get him and Lackey tossed. I think he will improve because he appears to take the defensive side of catching very serious and I love Borzello as his coach.

  • In reply to jefeggs2542:

    This is no joke. Willson was brutal framing pitches in the playoffs too.

  • In reply to jefeggs2542:

    If an umpire is calling a pitch down the middle a ball, pitch framing isn't the problem. Framing is valuable on the edges, to "help" the umpire understand which side of the edge the pitch was on!

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    Good description. Umps just call them the way they see them. Tons of pitches fall into that category.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    If pitch framing is real, does that mean the umps can't see the ball? If they ever get robo ump then pitch framing will no longer matter.

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    I guess it would not. If?

  • In reply to 44slug:

    The fact 'pitch framing' is even discussed and measured, is reason enough to say MLB should automate the strike zone. As John pointed out numerous times - the most important part of calling strikes, is consistency. If a certain type of pitch is occasionally missed, but missed consistently- that is better than what takes place now. These umpires miss 4 or 5 each half inning.

  • In reply to cubbustible:

    I’m a little in agreement w/this. But at the very least the human umps should call balls & strikes in relation to the plate for width & knees to letters for height of zone. It should NOT be where/how the catcher positions his glove. And be consistent w/the zone for the day. Yes, the umps are human & humans are not perfect.

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    I never noticed framing as much until the strike zone box was made a part of every broadcast. Some catchers are better at receiving a pitch when the pitcher missed his spot. Wilson is sometimes to loud back there. I noticed it more when there are runners on base.

  • In reply to jefeggs2542:

    This is one of the things I have noticed about him as well. He often seems "busy" behind the plate, and I wonder how much of an impact that has on his framing. I'm sure it will improve with time and experience, but it's definitely a place for improvement.

  • This might be one of those rare instances where Jared could have just written the headline of this blog post and nothing else. I don’t think you need to write anything further than “Willson Contreras is one of the best catchers in baseball”.

    He is becoming more and more valuable every year. Hope he can stay healthy and give us another 10 years of quality offense, defense and leadership.

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    Rizzo belongs on the untouchable list, too!

  • In reply to Cub Fan in PA:

    Here's the thing, I could see a deal where I would be OK with moving Rizzo but we're probably talking straight up for Kluber or Sale and it's more likely that my cat sprouts wings, starts singing and flies than either of those things happening so, yeah I can go with Rizzo as untouchable.

  • In reply to TC154:

    I think all four of those players are untouchable. The only way out of Wrigley for them is as free agents. Baez plays several positions at a high level, but the way he took over the leadership of that infield when he was filling in for Russell, was a sight to behold. Including the way Javy kept Contreras from making contact with the umpire in the Lacky incident.

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    In reply to Cub Fan in PA:

    Especially given his incredibly reasonable contract.

  • Back in 2011, when Boise still had a video feed of their games, I found myself impressed by an 19 year old that saw time at five different positions, none of them catcher. While Contreras batted only .261 and looked quite shaky defensively at third base, it always seemed like he was coming up with clutch hits as that team fought its way into the playoffs.

    I was disappointed when Boise did not have video the next season, as a team with Contreras and six other future major league players (Albert Almora, Jeimer Candelario, Marco Hernandez, Dan Vogelbach, Pierce Johnson, Felix Pena) came within a few outs of winning the Northwest League championship, but was excited to find out that the cubs would be transferring their Single-A affiliate to Kane Co the next season.

    When I had the opportunity to meet Contreras the next season, I became further impressed by the ease in which he carried himself and how he acted like a "big brother" to players like Candelario, Hernandez, and Gioskar Amaya. Contereas not only took time out his own preparation on several occasions to talk with me, but to also translate for his teammates.

    John and I used to talk a lot on how we viewed prospects, but one we always agreed on was Contreras. It is good to see how Contreras was able to develop his game, and become one of the position's elite players.

  • In reply to Tom U:

    Those Boise teams were a ton of fun to watch. Even if I had the intention of finishing another game I was watching, i would always gravitate to the Boise games.

  • Contreras seems to have the ability to block pitches in the dirt and keep them in front of him better than most. I know he has saved quite a few pitches from being wild pitches this past season. I think this also helps the pitchers have a little more confidence in throwing low in the strike zone knowing Contreras will probably block it if they are a little off.

  • Willson may go down as one of the Cub's all-time great catchers, maybe even the best. We Cub fans are lucky to be able to watch him play in his prime.

  • In reply to HefCA:

    It amazes me to think that a generation or two of Cubs fans will one day remember stars of the team we're watching now with the same veneration - or more - that my generation had for Banks, Williams, Santo, Jenkins.... We're watching more than good baseball - it's historic!

  • In reply to HefCA:

    Gabby Hartnett is the greatest Cubs catcher of all-time

  • In reply to WaitUntilNextYear:

    Not Barry Foote?

  • In reply to TexasCubsFan:

    George Mitterrand?

  • In reply to Milk Stout:

    Mitterwald * dang auto uncorrect

  • In reply to Milk Stout:

    A close 2nd behind Barry.

  • I remember when Contreras was in A ball, all the praise John was heaping on him, and hes turned out to be correct. Contreras has Yadi written all over him with better offensive skill.

  • There are some players that we know are good, and there are some we just enjoy watching more than others.

    Contreras is one I really enjoy watching - it's not just the (still developing) skills, it's the intensity. He plays every game as though it is both his first and last.

    The relevant question is whether the staff wants him behind the plate for them. They all seem to, and why would they not?

  • Along with Bryant and Rizzo, Contreras is the only other untouchable player on the roster. Those three are the core. Things may change a bit in a few years if Bryant chooses to pursue FA, in which the FO may have to make a pre-emptive move with him, but for the next 3 years or so these are the guys you build around.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    If Schwarber does what he say's he's trying to do, he just might become an "untouchable" as well.

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    He certainly could position himself as such given his potential as a left handed bat and the balance it would provide the lineup. But too many questions right now in regards to his defense, and of course the issues he had at the plate at times last year. Plus, there is the looming specter of Bryce Harper next offseason. Schwarber has the right attitude though and certainly doesn't seem like someone that will be outworked.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Thinking positive - Schwarber makes the Cubs forget Harper, who signs in the AL, and the Cubs go into 2019 with an infield of Bryant-Machado-Baez-Rizzo...

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    It's... possible

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    actually cliff, i would like machado better as a FA signing. rizzo, baez,russell and machado at third. with contraras behind the plate. that would be five potential GG winners. bryant goes to left field where he is already a better defender than schwarber and could win a GG at some point as well. the con to my scenario is, that makes them that much more right-handed and still no legit lead-off hitter. a defense of contreras,rizzo, baez,russell, machado, bryant,alomora,and heyward would make the pitching staff smile. (a lot)

  • In reply to DLROBERTSON:

    Putting Bryant in LF is a bad move. LF is the least important defensive position on the field. You are taking a guy who can run and throw and making his defensive contributions virtually nill. If Bryant goes to the OF, he should look at CF. Plus, i think Bryant is just fine at 3B. That move is replacing Schwarber for Russell. That would be a huge downgrade on Offense. I would not make that move.

  • In reply to rbrucato:

    Would not that be something? Bryant leading off playing center with a 400 Obp, 40 homeruns and 100 runs batted in.

    Both Russell and Schwarber struggled last year. This is kind of an important year for both. Will they bounce back or follow the Jerome Walton path.

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    Forget "untouchable" for crying out loud! Baez and Russell up the middle are just as "untouchable as any of the other young guys! Listen, the Cubs are not gonna move any of the young players on this team. You can depend on that.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Not to split hairs, but I think Baez and Schwarber are are also untouchable short of a kings ransom. It's not what they are, rather what they might become that makes trading them yet so risky.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    Yes, I agree to some extent. And I think I have made my attachment to Javy quite clear over the years. Both are close, but they are certainly "in the right deal" camp where there are legitimate (and not just pie in the sky) scenarios where moving one or both makes sense.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Agreed Michael - unless somebody just comes in with some killer, can't turn that sort of thing down, offer for Bryant, Rizzo, Contreras or Baez (I also love his game!) - you don't move any of those guys for 2-3 years. Too much value for what they are going to be paid.

    To lesser extent I think the same about Schwarber, Almora and Russell - although each of them is probably more easily replaceable, and their ceilings could each still be amazingly high IF they can put it all together - they are just lest 'sure things' to do so.

    I would prefer that they don't trade anybody from that core this Winter,... but could more easily see doing so for Schwarber, Almora and Russell than for Bryzzo, Contreras or Baez

  • Off topic again, but I see the Dodgers have hired Brant Brown as a hitting instructor and Mark Prior as a bullpen coach. Good for them, as I have fond memories of both. Part of me hopes, however, that they can combine their histories to conjure a "Cubbie Occurrence" out in left field at Wrigley for a Dodgers player during a critical postseason moment.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    I wouldn't wish a play like that on anyone.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Buckner, Bartman, Donnie Moore, etc

    That kind of stuff can ruin lives, let alone careers.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Leon Durham

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    Well, Prior is certainly qualified to teach the "towel drill."

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    He lead the league for two years.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    Ohhhhhh Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

    Thought Santo was going to arrest right there........

  • Breaking news ... The Texas Rangers will be adding right-handed pitcher Brandon Cumpton. Now maybe we will see some of those top 10 free agents signing with teams.

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    I might be wrong be it seems like we are not as excited about this team as we were in 2015 or 2016. Loosing Jake (maybe) is tough but we do have Q and Hendricks is better than in 2015 and Lester and Chatwood and the position players are more experienced and still not in their prime. We have strength up the middle, with the great Willson C becoming one of the best catchers in the game and Russell only 1 year away from a 95 RBI season. We were so close last year and there's no reason we can't get to the WS again this year. We have the best defensive team in baseball and one of the best offensive teams as well.
    Let's win another WS this year. Go Cubs!

  • I love watching contreras play. I absolutely love the way he plays the game, including the errors and everything he plays with so much passion and is a great teammate. Contreras and Baez are my favorite cubs players, ironically they both are hendry acquisitions.

  • In reply to bolla:

    I love watching Willson catch and throw, but if I were a pitcher I might like throwing to a more quiet receiver like Ross or Rivera. Still Contreras' energy is contagious and good pitchers can adjust.

  • I still cringe whenever Willson (illegally) sticks his left leg out to block home plate. Watch the replay of Buster Posey's May, 2011 injury, Willson and NO, Willson, STOP IT!

  • In reply to DropThePuck:

    Before Posey was hurt catchers were expected to block the plate nd runners were expected to take out the catcher when appropriate. In my day, I took some pretty good hits in amature ball doing both. No helmets at the plate either.

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