When yesterday’s lineup came out, we all immediately knew something very big was happening.
With Willson Contreras behind the plate to catch Jake Arrieta for the first time this season, Joe Maddon and the Cubs were officially at least experimenting with the idea of having Contreras available to catch any starter in any game going forward. The implications there, of course, are significant, with the playoffs looming, and every starting player selection magnified (and, given the versatility on the roster, every decision in one starting spot seemingly impacting another).
Previous regular starting catcher Miguel Montero had become something of a personal catcher to Arrieta since Contreras’s emergence, much in the way David Ross regularly catches Jon Lester (though Contreras has already caught Lester once this year, when Ross missed time). In an ideal world, though, the Cubs would at least maintain the flexibility to start Contreras behind the plate in an Arrieta game.
Contreras is probably better defensively, overall, at this point, than Montero, and is hitting .266/.352/.445 (115 wRC+) to Montero’s .187/.312/.308 (65 wRC+). The question has been whether Contreras is ready to manage the pitching staff in the same way Montero can, and whether his receiving skills are up to the challenged of a pitcher with so much movement and velocity like Arrieta.
For his part, Maddon referred to the decision to have Contreras catch Arrieta as a “test drive,” to see how the two would work together (Cubs.com). Going forward, you can’t know how things will play out and who will be available when and how the postseason roster will be constructed, so the Cubs need to try some things out right now, while they can, to see what will work and what won’t. Or at least to be in the best possible position to make a decision when the time comes.
How did the test drive go?
Well, from an outsider’s perspective observing the game, I didn’t see any obvious issues in the battery. No, it was not a good Jake Arrieta start. For three innings he looked fantastic, and then his fastball command left him, and it was a bit unnerving, as it sometimes is. Arrieta walked a career high seven batters, though it was hard to pin that on Contreras.
I’m not sure it’s entirely on Arrieta, either, as I this morning count a whopping 10 – wow, ten – balls that were in or on the edge of the strike zone from him that were called balls. Perhaps you could say that was a lack of framing from Contreras – maybe there just needs to be more familiarity there – but it didn’t really look that way to the eye.
(Yikes – checking the entire zone from the game at Brooks, the disparity in missed calls yesterday is shocking. I see 17 incorrect calls (based on the “typically called” zone) going against the Cubs to just 4(!) going against the Brewers. That’s one of the most extreme I’ve ever seen, and it looks like it was driven primarily by Cubs pitches that were juuuuust barely on the edge of the zone but not called.)
If there were framing/body-positioning issues, that can presumably be corrected as the two work together more. To me, it just looked like Arrieta was not hitting his spots, which made it all the more difficult for the Cubs to get those close strikes called in their favor. Throw in the fact that most of the close ones that were called balls were down – the hardest pitches to frame, especially from a guy with velocity and movement like Arrieta – and I just don’t know how much we can say Contreras did or did not impact the outcome of pitches.
What did Arrieta and Maddon think of Contreras’s performance, though?
Maddon said the walks were not on Contreras “at all,” and Arrieta said that he and Contreras “are pretty comfortable with each other [despite] not having worked in an actual game together,” per Cubs.com. “He knows what I like to do, I know his catching style from behind the plate. That wasn’t the issue – it was just missed execution and not hitting spots in a couple key situations.”
So, then. While you would of course have loved to see a dominant Arrieta performance, with Contreras stealing strikes left and right, the fact that it was a rough outing for Arrieta yesterday does not necessarily mean there are any issues with these two working together going forward.
We’ll see if Contreras is behind the plate for Arrieta’s next outing, and then how that is handled as we head into September.