Cubs should consider scaling back their usage of Willson Contreras behind the plate in 2019

Willson Contreras

Willson Contreras

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:

  1. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever before
  2. Pitchers are throwing more breaking balls than ever before
  3. 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):

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:

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.

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  • Well done, Michael, and I completely agree. Willson seems to have an unlimited amount of fire and energy, but even he is susceptible to burnout. I think that was a factor in his offensive woes.

    I do believe we need to sign a quality backup C. Caratini is a talented young man with several impressive traits, but I'd rather have more of a veteran presence for Contreras to lean on. I commented yesterday how I think Schwarber's desire to please and adapt to various roles has hurt him, and I see some similar traits in Contreras. He's probably a little more hard-headed than Schwarber, but I really believe a strong veteran mentor would be in everyone's best interest. Couple that with the physical break it would provide and I put adding that quality backup C near the top of my offseason wish list.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    If you take the approach of cutting back the amount of innings/games Wilson plays then you better have a quality platoon system in place. A David Ross, caratini or John Baker isn’t gonna get the job done offensively. Not sure how Wilson will feel about playing 4 games a week.

  • In reply to WaitTilNextYear:

    Yeah, the Cubs would never win anything with that David Ross guy taking up a roster spot...

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    You missed the point. Ross was obviously a good/popular clubhouse guy but if he had to play 40% of your games as a catcher because you wanted to "rest" the catcher more then the team would suffer with his on field performance.

  • In reply to WaitTilNextYear:

    Absolutely right, but I'd offer that defensive performance is more critical than offensive for the backup catcher position.

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    I agree. A back up catcher better be dang good on defense to off set the offense. At some point the 4-5 at bats 3 days a week would hurt the team more then help the team with defense. That would be interesting to see a back up catching that hits .210 at what point or how often does he have to play before it hurts the team?

  • Thanks BP. The more I consider it the more convinced I am that the Cubs need to consider an upgrade at backup catcher. Unfortunately, that is way easier said than done. Many teams are struggling to field a decent starting catcher. It will be very interesting to see how they handle the situation.

  • I think part of the reason Posey plays so much first base is that Brandon Belt can't stay healthy. Another reason is Bruce Bochy a former catcher and one of the best managers in the game.

  • Good stuff Michael. Maybe we could ship Chapman off to the Jays for Martin. Caratini's bat would make a nice trade chip.

    Off topic question: we know he won't opt out, but wasn't Heywards contract front loaded? If so, couldn't they tear up the old contract, rewrite a new one for the same amount remaining and bring down the AAV for luxury tax purposes?

  • In reply to TheMightyGin:

    Baseball contracts are guaranteed. Can't rewrite them.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    well yeah. I was thinking they could have a handshake deal. Heyward opts out and viola, new deal in place. It would've taken the AAV down from 23.25 to 21.25 by my math. I didn't know anything about the bonuses mentioned by 2016 Cubs below.

  • In reply to TheMightyGin:

    Heyward did indeed decline his opt-out, as that deadline passed Wednesday night. He has 5 years and $106M remaining and the AAV is staying pretty much in line with the actual output, around $22M-$23M annually.

    I'm all for creativity, but you have to look at a restructured contract from both sides. If the club gains flexibility, there would have to be incentives on the players' end. That would likely involve additional guaranteed years at a lower annual rate, and I'm sure we don't want to go there.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    Not to mention the $20M due 2024-2027 in $5M increments if he finishes out the contract. If he opts out or is traded that $20M is to be paid immediately.

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    Correction I think the $20M is due ONLY if he opts out.

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    Those bonuses are a grey area as far as CBT numbers go. I'm a baseball nerd and I haven't fully figured it out.

    I do know that the shackles are almost off. There were provisions of the Ricketts purchase in 2010 about legal percentages and how finances were counted regarding organizational expenditures and limits on payroll. Those legal restrictions are about to expire, and we have the upcoming boon of the the new TV deal. We have always been a large-market team with the option of a large-market mentality, but poor ownership screwed us. We have a world-class ownership group now, one that carry us through a truly golden age, and I'm looking forward to seeing the Cubs act as a big boy with competent parents.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    I agree about ownership. The Ricketts are great. They are in it to make money and they are fans of the Cubs. Don't get not better then that.

    Do you look at spotrac.com for contracts. They seem to do an excellent job at breaking down pro contracts. Including explaining bonuses.

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    I think we're entering an absolute golden age of Cubs baseball, and every ounce of of credit needs to go to the Ricketts. Full stop, no questions asked. We're a large-market team and are finally being run as such. It starts at the top. Go Cubs!

    I do follow spotrac, but my go-to source on contract info is Cot's. I can't say one is better than another, it's more just comfort and familiarity. As far as the bonuses and how they may affect any individual season's CBT numbers, there are so many variables. IF a player opts out, or IF an option isn't exercised, or IF a player is traded, all factor into how and when those bonus payments are calculated into a specific yearly payroll. We can think about it until our head's hurt, but that is why we have lawyers on staff. Hooray nerds!

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    I agree about the Ricketts. I like spotrac for individual contracts and Cots for the team salaries and CBT. I don't pretend to understand about all about salaries and bonuses and player opt outs. Like you said leave that to the lawyers.

  • I noted several times that I thought Willson needed more rest. I had the impression that Joe just didn't trust the backups. Anyway, Willy plays so hard on every pitch and would not let up until he is toast. I like Caratini, but would like to see a defensive minded veteran as well. Giminez lost favor somehow. I had confidence in Victor and felt that he could have covered more often.

  • Johnny Field is from where? Las Vegas? How old is he 26? How old is Harper and Bryant? Hmmmmmm!

  • Wow, the fact that Willson logged more innings at catcher last year than anyone else in MLB says a whole lot about why he tailed off so significantly at the plate last year.

    I do think you hit on something here, Michael. Also I love how Bochy uses Buster at 1B a lot. This is by design, not just because Belt is injured by the way. Being in the bay area I watch the games and they openly discuss how Posey is used at first base many times to save wear and tear on his body.

    Posey is an upgrade, offensively, especially against LH pitchers, at first for SF, so it makes sense to put him there when facing a tough lefty or to give Belt a rest. But it's not really an upgrade to put Contreras at 1B, regardless of the pitcher, since Rizzo is so dangerous with the bat. Also it's well know that Rizzo does not want to take games off. So I doubt, as long as Anthony is healthy, that we'll see Contreras play at 1B too much. It's more reasonable just to give him more games off than he received this year.

  • In reply to HefCA:

    Actually a lot of the games that Posey plays at 1st is because of the number of games Belt has missed. Bochy also DH's Posey a lot in AL away games.

  • In reply to HefCA:

    The practice of moving catchers with big bats off the position, however temporarily, to save their legs is nothing new. But it is usually invoked later in a career, not with such a young pup as Willson. Perhaps we can forge another trail in blazing the way of backstop management.

    I'm all for signing a quality backup. Take the daily pressure off of Contreras and allow him to play LF. I'll state again I really believe he could use a veteran peer to confide in and lean on. I think the Cubs have done Willson a disservice by throwing him to the wolves with a AAA backup. The catcher position at the MLB level can only be rivaled by the QB position in the NFL. It is a highly-taxing description, and one I feel deserves more support than the FO has provided.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    Agree, I think Giminez was supposed to be that guy, but was manipulative with the Darvish connection, and butted heads with Maddon. Joe didn't wast him in the clubhouse and took Victor north. I, of course,don't know that, just a feeling. There was some underlining problem with 'the boys' and Maddon on that backup catcher thing too.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    Contreras played 12 innings in the outfield last year. I'd rather him focus on catching and forget playing a different position next year.

  • Also, anybody think Shwarbs could still take a dozen or so turns behind the dish or are his catching days behind him?

  • In reply to TheMightyGin:

    I wish. I know that he could but I doubt he gets to be anything more than the emergency 3rd catcher.

  • In reply to TheMightyGin:

    Schwarber catching days are done

  • With all the talk about bringing in a veteran catcher, how about kicking the tires on Wilson Ramos ?

  • Ken rosenthal said right now multi year deal with hamels is unlikely & the cubs might make a trade to clear salary before picking up hamels 20 mil option!!

  • In reply to bolla:

    I read the MLBTR piece on that, and I failed to see the logic of needing to shed salary before signing Hamels. Assuming the MLBTR piece was a reliable synopsis.

    I had been toying with the idea of Russell Martin of a veteran backup. I am sure TOR would love to get him off the books. Unfortunately, Martin is also RH (would prefer a LH-hitting backup) and I would only trade for Martin in a bad contract swap, eg Chatwood, which is probably not realistic.

  • In reply to CubsFanInNorway:

    Because with arbitration raises the cubs are projected to be at 211 mil in payroll without signing/acquiring anyone.It may be to not completely blow past the luxury tax thresholds.

  • In reply to bolla:

    If he wants to explore free agency for a multi-year deal, it is $20M or walk, but the parties could also agree to a better one year deal: Cubs decline option and sign for say, $17M. Hamels gets $23M total and Cubs get a little AAV relief. Doubt he's going to get more than $26M on a one year deal in the open market, but 2-3 years in the upper teens is distinctly possible. Texas wouldn't be happy but had already agreed to pay the $6M so might as well monitize it.

  • In reply to charactercounts:

    Doubt the cubs do that because of prior relationship with rangers fo that wouldn't be a good look by the cubs to allow the rangers to buyout then renegotiate. I think it's either exercise option or a 2 year deal with lower aav

  • Does anyone know if the Zell restrictions are still binding on the 2019 season? It is the last year of the broadcast rights so 2020 should bring in significant incremental revenue to make them moot. If so, it would explain the caution with Hamels and burst any fan dreams of top tier free agent signings.

  • In reply to charactercounts:

    I think next year is the last year on the restrictions

  • In reply to charactercounts:

    I'm not sure about the restrictions but they blew by them awhile ago so I don't think that's a factor. I also don't think this means they won't spend in FA. I think it just means that they have a number they know they can't exceed and they were unwilling to spend $92 mil on a starting rotation.

  • Well, now that the Cubs has Cole Hamels for 2019 , are there any more trades coming ?
    Does Nico Hoerner make the big Club in 2019 ? Will the Cubs rid themselves of Addison Russell ?

  • In reply to ronvet69:

    Nico still needs development. Won't be on the Cubs in 2019.

  • In reply to John57:

    Bummer ! The Cubs don't have payroll flexibility right now but they still need a true leadoff man who has reasonable speed and above average on base percentage. Can they trade for one ? Is any player available for trade ?

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