Willson Contreras made his starting debut last night, and will follow it up tonight with another start behind the plate. He drove in a run with a single in the game, but we already suspected the bat would play in the big leagues. After all, he homered on the first pitch he saw – that proves it, right?
Now that I’ve removed my tongue from my cheek, what you really want to know is how Contreras looked behind the plate, being that this part of his game will determine just how often he sees action at the big league level.
For what little it’s worth, I’ll say that I thought he looked a little excitable back there, which made it look a little less “soft” when he received close pitches. That is to say, he was a touch more stabby than guys like Miguel Montero and David Ross … but those are two veterans who are literally among the best framers in the game. If Contreras looked like them last night, I would not have known how to comprehend it. Contreras looked fine, but young, as a receiver. Given that he’s a first-time big leaguer who converted to catching a few years ago, I’d say that’s great.
I checked the strike zone maps at Brooks just to see if anything glaring stood out, and it didn’t. There were a couple strikes that were called as balls, but the zone was pretty tight last night overall (and well-called). The Cubs also got a few strikes called on balls, so it wasn’t entirely one-directional. All in all, I’m glossing over this part, because there really wasn’t much to remark upon when I reviewed the charts. Contreras looked fine to my eyes, and the charts don’t obviously dispute that.
With more data, over time, I expect we’ll find that Contreras is a below-average framer. For now. With his athleticism, eagerness to learn, and the veteran talent and coaching infrastructure around him, I have no reason to believe he cannot improve.
But receiving isn’t the only thing a catcher does. He also calls the game and works with the pitcher on the plan, and it sounds like starter John Lackey was satisfied in that respect (Cubs.com). I saw the occasional disagreement, and the overall flow was probably slightly more fractured than it would have been with Montero or Ross back there, but, again, nothing that jumped out as a problem.
Then there’s the “defensive” part of being a catcher, and boy did Contreras wow in that respect in the 9th inning.
This throw to second base to nail Matt Carpenter trying to steal was a freaking rocket. It made for a completely appropriate GIF and additional fun:
— Randall J. Sanders (@RandallJSanders) June 21, 2016
And Ben Zobrist finishes it by giving Matt Carpenter the old face tag. pic.twitter.com/wuPJrpFQt7
— Brett Taylor (@BleacherNation) June 21, 2016
Then, with a runner on first, Clayton Richard gave up a double to deep left center. The ball hung for a while, and took a long time to get to. It was a run-scoring play all the way. Except Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Contreras combined for a perfectly-executed out:
The Cubs really had no business making that play. Perfect and quick by Bryant off the wall, perfect and quick turn by Russell, and then a perfect and quick catch and tag by Contreras.
And check out Contreras’s quote after the game about that play. I love it:
Contreras on tagging out Diaz at home: pic.twitter.com/RBV38kQ3av
— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) June 21, 2016
So what’s next for Contreras? Well, as tonight’s start indicates, he’ll be worked into the mix with some regularity, which suggests this is not going to be a short-term thing. Even if it means Contreras misses out on regular starts at AAA right now, clearly the Cubs believe he can help them win at the big league level *and* continue his development. I get pretty excited by that.
We should probably expect to see Montero continue to catch Jake Arrieta, and we should of course expect to see Ross continue to catch Jon Lester. But when it comes to the other three starters, Joe Maddon intimated that Contreras could catch two or three times when that group comes up for a start (ESPN). As long as everyone can stay sharp in that rotation, it sounds ideal for the Cubs. You’ll recall that something resembling this – with different formulations – was always the plan coming into the season (Schwarber/Montero/Ross). The difference, of course, is that Contreras is solely a catcher for now. So, getting consistent big league at bats will be the primary challenge of this type of rotation. The extra rest for Montero and Ross, however, will probably be extremely welcomed.
On that front, you might be wondering how Montero is taking the possibility of now not being the “starting” catcher (and maybe even starting less than Contreras does). Well, you should read his comments in this ESPN piece to see how well he’s taking it, how much he wants to win, and how much he wants to make Contreras better. It’s been like that with Montero and the Cubs’ young catchers – be it Schwarber or Contreras or anyone else – from thing one, so no one should be surprised.
And now we see how this all plays out. We see how often Contreras starts. We see how the rotation works out. We see how Contreras’s defensive ability shines, and how his receiving and game-calling improves. And we see if the bat can still be a plus, even if not starting regularly (and now in MLB, rather than AAA).
I can’t wait.