When Kyle Schwarber was injured in just the third game of the season, I wasn’t quite sure who could fill the Schwarber-sized hole left in our collective hearts. And while no one can replace Schwarber, I’d say fans have taken pretty well to the current young, catcher-slash-left-fielder Willson Contreras.
Contreras came up to the Cubs after a monster showing in the Minor Leagues and was an immediately impactful contributor at the Major League level.
After watching Contreras dominate at the plate night after night, while splitting time between catcher and left field – almost exactly like Kyle Schwarber in 2015 – I knew we had our candidate. He has the attitude, the intensity, and (most importantly) the ability to be one of the most exciting players on the field at all times, and that’s precisely what Kyle Schwarber brought to the Cubs.
But Contreras lives not in Schwarber’s shadow. No. Unlike Schwarber, Willson Contreras has slowly become the Cubs primary catcher – and a really good one at that.
In fact, he’s even graduated beyond catching only the back of the rotation (the “less nasty pitchers”) and has caught the staff ace, Jake Arrieta, twice in a row now. And while the first outing with Jake didn’t quite go off without a hitch (to be fair you can’t blame seven walks entirely on Contreras), last night’s effort was far more encouraging. Not only did Arrieta have one of his best outings in a while (an 8-inning, two-hit shutout), Contreras looked good behind the plate and once again showed off his rocket arm.
After the Padres lead-off hitter, Travis Jankowski, walked and ultimately advanced to third base on a grounder and a stolen bag, Contreras made sure he made it no further. Calling for a fastball well out of the zone, Contreras received the ball popped up and fired to Kris Bryant at third, picking off Jankowski in the process:
Espectacular disparó de Wilson Contreras (@willsoncontreras40) sorprende al corredor en la tercera almohadilla. Wilson Contreras: 3-2 / 2B (9) / AVG .270 #Venezuela #vinotinto #soyvinotinto #vinotintosomostodos #aquisehablabeisbol #baseball #beisbol #grandesligas #MLB #WilsonContreras #Cubs #Tigres #Aragua
Check out the metrics:
Wow, WIllson Contreras with the pick off…
Pop time: 1.5 seconds
Arm Strength: 85.5 MPH
Exchange: 0.77 seconds@Cubs
— Daren Willman (@darenw) August 24, 2016
While that sort of play can have an obvious effect on the outcome of the game by way of there is no longer a runner on third base and the Cubs also have an extra out, it could mean a bit more than that. At least, according to manager Joe Maddon.
“The pickoff at third was large,” Maddon said after the game, per Cubs.com. “Those kind of plays are demoralizing to the other team.” Indeed, while statistics and probabilities reign supreme, there is at least something to be said about energy and momentum. Contreras crushed all of it with that pickoff. And while his defense behind the plate is definitely something I can get used to, I don’t think it’ll ever get old:
The Mutombo finger wag, classic. pic.twitter.com/f5iQTSmgYi
— MLB GIFS (@MLBGIFs) August 2, 2016
But despite his many skills behind the plate, Contreras is far from solely being a defensively-oriented catcher. In fact, he’s also get some serious skills with the bat, including, apparently, the ability to turn a single into a double by nailing the umpire with the ball:
But, in all seriousness, make no mistake: Willson Contreras turned that single into a double all on his own. The ball being deflected may have provided an opportunity, but not one that many base runners would or could have taken advantage of. Contreras ran hard out of the box, made an extremely aggressive turn, and showed why playing the game at 100% all the time can have an actual impact on your performance.
That double came as part of a great night at the plate that also saw Contreras add a single and a walk. His season slash line is now up to a beautiful .270/.354/.443 (.347 wOBA, 115 wRC+), with a 10.0% walk rate and a 23.0% strikeout rate in over 200 plate appearances.
For me, however, the most exciting part about Contreras’ debut this season has been his ability to adjust. If you recall, he came into the league blistering hot, with a .393 wOBA in his first 100 or so plate appearances, before cooling off (.237 wOBA) in his next 50 plate appearances. But since then (in the month of August), Contreras has responded to the league’s adjustments with adjustments of his own – and is once again raking: .296/.377/.463 (.364 wOBA) in his last 61 plate appearances. Among catchers with at least 200 plate appearances, Contreras’ .347 season wOBA is tied with Buster Posey for fifth best in all of baseball.
With Kris Bryant and Addison Russell tearing the cover off the ball, Javy Baez providing nightly highlight reel plays, Jake Arrieta bouncing back in big ways, and Kyle Hendricks making a case for the NL Cy Young (I could go on), it’s easy to overlook Contreras’ contributions. But make sure you don’t. This kid is special and has a chance to be heavy-hitting, rocket-throwing, Cubs catcher for quite some time.
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