Like the 300-inning starting pitcher, should the 1100-inning catcher be a thing relegated to baseball's past?
The position has evolved into a more demanding position than ever before. Catchers are under greater scrutiny in terms of pitch framing at a time when:
- Pitchers are throwing harder than ever before
- Pitchers are throwing more breaking balls than ever before
- Games are longer than ever before
All of this contributes to greater mental and physical exertion over the course of the season. The only advantage I can think of that catchers have gained over the years is a decrease in the number of day games. But even back then, the adage of resting a catcher for a day game after a night game existed.
It is no wonder offensive production out of the catcher position is nearing record lows. Check out this article by Mike Petriello on why J.T. Realmuto is such a hot commodity this offseason at a time when few teams boast a catcher that is even semi-competent with a bat in his hands. Catchers are being forced to exert more energy on the defensive end than any other position and then asked to catch up with high-90s velocity on a regular basis. It is a big ask, and very few athletes are capable of holding up on both ends.
Why do I bring this up? The Cubs are certainly not going to pursue a trade with the Marlins for Realmuto 's services, not with Willson Contreras around. But as I discussed a potential rebound season from Willy in 2019 yesterday, I stumbled across his usage patterns from last season, and discovered how out of line they were, not just from his previous career norms, but also in comparison to how often the rest of baseball is utilizing their top backstop.
Contreras set a career high with 138 games played in 2018. His previous mark was the 131 he logged between AAA Iowa and Chicago in 2016. But a deeper look at the numbers shows why his 2018 total represented a vast difference in terms of possible wear and tear that could have contributed to his offensive production bottoming out during the second half of last season (126 wRC+ prior to the break, 63 wRC+ after):
#Cubs Willson Contreras def. usage past 3 years:
2016, C: 777 Innings (79.6%) | OF/IF: 199.2 Innings (23.4%)
2017, C: 821.1 Innings (93.8%) | OF/IF: 54 Innings (6.2%)
2018, C: 1109.2 Innings (98.7%) | OF/IF: 15 Innings (1.3%)
Is workload a factor in his 2018 2nd half slowdown?
— Michael Ernst (@mj_ernst) November 1, 2018
Contreras led MLB catchers with 1,109.2 innings behind the plate in 2019. He was the only catcher to hit the 1,100 mark and one of just four that logged above 1,000. At a time when teams are using any and all means to leverage roster construction and player usage in the most beneficial manner, it would behoove the Cubs to examine why they were so out of line with the rest of the league, even those with elite catchers.
There have been just 60 other 1,100-inning seasons from catchers over the past 15 years, 46 of which are accounted for by the 13 players who managed the feat more than once:
- Yadier Molina (8x)
- Jason Kendall (6x, 11 total stretching back prior to 2004)
- A.J. Pierzynski (4x, 5 total)
- Salvador Perez (4x)
- Brian McCann (3x)
- Victor Martinez (3x)
- Russell Martin (3x)
- Matt Weiters (3x)
- Miguel Montero (3x)
- Kurt Suzuki (3x)
- Jorge Posada (2x, 6 total)
- Benji Molina (2x)
- Kenji Johjima (2x)
Only four from that group (Molina, Posada, McCann and Martinez) were able to consistently sustain above league average offensive production (wRC+ above 100) while logging so many innings. Kendall would also qualify, but only prior to 2004. Martinez began logging time at other positions after five or so years of heavy usage behind the dish, which may have enabled him to keep up his production well into his 30s. Weiters and Montero had short 2-3 year offensive peaks which they never managed to repeat even as their playing time decreased later in their careers. Martin recovered to continue contributing offensively but only after his playing time was scaled back a bit once he left the Dodgers.
While there is always a chance that Contreras develops into an outlier like Molina or Kendall, the odds are stacked against him, despite the fact he is a very good athlete who did not suffer much wear and tear during his Minor League career. He did not begin catching with any regularity until three years before making his MLB debut in 2016 but he will already be 27 years old next season and likely has reached (or just surpassed) his physical peak.
One big name you may have noticed was absent from the list above is that of Buster Posey. Not only has Posey never amassed 1,100 innings behind the plate during any season, he has only topped 1,000 twice (Posey has averaged just over 925 innings at C over the past 7 seasons). The Giants have wisely allowed him to log on average about 185 innings per season at 1B in an effort to keep his bat in the lineup. That works out to about 20 starts per season or 1 out of every 8 games. There is no reason the Cubs could not do the same with Contreras, especially since his versatility allows him to split time between LF and 1B. This would enable them to sit Schwarber against the occasional tough lefty while also resting Rizzo once every other week.
Peak Buster Posey (career-high 164 wRC+ in 2012, a season I might add which occurred before he ever logged a 1,000+ inning season behind the plate) may be a tad rich to expect from Contreras as an offensive contributor, but in 7 of Posey's 9 seasons his wRC+ has sat between 115-135. Contreras reached 126 and 122 in his first two years, before falling back to 100 last season. I don't believe hoping for that level of contribution from Contreras is out of line with his talent level. But I do believe that his best chance of achieving it on a regular basis will require the Cubs rethinking his deployment moving forward and I feel the Giants have already mapped out the appropriate template to use.