I was at Friday’s Cubs game (against the Pirates), in which Willson Contreras’ made his Major League debut.
Much to my chagrin, it was just his defensive debut, as he came in to replace catcher Miguel Montero in the top of the 9th inning, just before the Cubs went on to win. He was left on deck in the bottom of the eighth when Montero lined into a double play.
With Jon Lester on the mound on Saturday, Contreras never got into the game, but on Sunday, he made his debut at the plate in style, with a big home run to right-center field.
The dinger resulted in some seriously awesome visuals …
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) June 20, 2016
And now even more excitement, as the plan is for Contreras to get his first start behind the plate tonight against the Cardinals. Due to his recent trio of debuts (defensive, offensive, and starting), plenty has been written about the Cubs hopeful catcher of the future, so let’s run down a few of them here in another bulleted version of some Contreras Notes.
- As you can imagine, Contreras was floored by his first big league home run on Sunday. “I’d been dreaming of this moment (first at-bat) since I was a kid,” Contreras told ESPN’s Buster Olney (via Jesse Rogers) after the game. “I knew it was gone. When I started running the bases it was exciting … it was amazing. It was the craziest thing, the best feeling I ever had.” And luckily, the fan that caught the ball returned it to Contreras, whose first hit and first home run came on what is now still the only pitch he’s ever seen in the Major Leagues. In a funny turn of events, Contreras still had to head back to the bullpen after the homer and subsequent curtain call, to continue warming up pitchers. “I know you’re happy,” the coaches said (as Contreras recalls), “but you have to go back to the bullpen.” Life as a rookie, third string catcher.
- Contreras won’t have to head back to the bullpen tonight, though, because he’ll be catching veteran John Lackey in his first ever Major League start. And it sounds like Lackey is planning on imparting some wisdom. “We have some things to talk about, for sure,” Lackey said on Sunday, per ESPN. “We’ll try to get a system together where we can get to the pitch we want to throw quickly so the game flows good.” That’s a pretty interesting bit to hear, in my opinion, because I know have something very specific to look out for: the pacing and consistency of the pitch calling. It’s just his first start and just one random piece of the puzzle, but for those of us who aren’t scouts, this can be a pretty visible measure of the evening.
- Contreras’ home run, by the way, sailed 415 feet at 104 MPH into right center field and came off a changeup that Pirates right hander A.J. Schugel left up in the zone. Contreras became just the 27th player in history (and first Cub) to homer as a pinch hitter in his first at-bat, and the first Cub to homer in his first at-bat overall since Jorge Soler in 2014. It’s difficult to predict just how much power Contreras will show at the Major League level, but it might be significant. At Double-A Tennessee in 2015, Contreras slugged .478, but with a .145 ISO (and that was the best he had put up by far, to that point). But earlier this season at Triple-A Iowa, Contreras was slugging .593 with a .240 ISO, which would be the numbers you’d expect from a downright slugger. I’m guessing the home run in his first at bat will raise expectations more than they should be, but he is likely to do some damage with the stick.
- How much damage? Well, at FanGraphs, Eric Logenhagen comes in with a full scouting report, as of June 17. In short, the bat can be special and not just “he’s a good hitter for a catcher” kind of special. According to Logenhagen, Contreras has plus-plus bat speed and “an explosive weight transfer that results in plus raw power to all fields.” That’s the kind of scouting report that – when combined with low strikeout rates and high walk rates – gives GMs sweet dreams at night. Despite the obvious power, though, Contreras does not sacrifice average for slugging. He’s shown the ability to shorten up and slap the ball the other way, due to advanced pitch recognition (in terms of type and location), that allows him to adjust mid-swing.
- As we know, Contreras’s biggest area for improvement comes on his work behind the plate (not defensively – he’s quite good at preventing the running game – but with his game calling and receiving skills). According to Logenhagen, Contreras’s glove hand can sometimes be a bit slow to react to wildness, especially when it comes above the strike zone. He’s also reportedly had some issues with passed balls in that location, as well as below his left knee. Still, his pop time flashes plus, as he has quick feet and natural arm strength. With practice, there’s a lot of room (or rather ability) for improvement.
- Also at FanGraphs, Chris Mitchell projects Willson Contreras going forward, using his KATOH system and … well, just read it. Heading into the season, KATOH ranked Contreras No. 72 overall with a projected 4.2 WAR over his next six seasons. But after Contreras doubled down on his 2015 performance with an even better showing in Triple-A, KATOH has made some adjustments. Now, the system is projecting 9.3 WAR, putting him firmly in top 15 prospect territory. As a comparison, Jonathan Lucroy, at this point, was projected for 8.1 WAR by KATOH. [Brett: *faints*]
- And lastly, yes, Contreras has his work cut out for him, learning a brand new pitching staff as a player who’s only been catching for a few years, himself, but he might have entered the best possible situation. In addition to the obvious benefits of working with smart, veteran catchers with as much experience as David Ross and Miguel Montero, Contreras will also get to catch a veteran pitching staff. Guys like John Lackey and Jason Hammel, who have been around forever, have a wealth of knowledge they can share gained purely out of experience. And then, of course, there’s a couple of very legitimate aces in Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta who throw from opposite sides of the rubber, which could provide an additional layer of knowledge, as well. Most importantly, though, Contreras has been receiving exceedingly high marks from those he’s worked with, in terms of his already-existing knowledge, but also his willingness to learn and get better. JJ Stankevitz has a nice read on the importance and vision the Cubs have for Contreras and how his future at the position will be set up this year.