Because it’s impossible for me to write about Willson Contreras without dropping random praise, I have to point this out up front: of all catchers in 2016 with at least 250 plate appearances, Contreras’s 126 wRC+ was the best in baseball. Yes, that’s correct: Contreras was the best offensive catcher in all of baseball last year. Better than Jonathan Lucroy or Buster Posey. Better than Wilson Ramos or big story Sandy Leon. Better than everyone.
OK, and back to the focus on this post.
An interesting note in this FanGraphs piece on catchers playing out of position in 2016 got me thinking: Willson Contreras played the most non-catching innings of all big league catchers in 2016, with over 180 innings in left field.
The article doesn’t really get into it, instead focusing on extreme and bizarre examples (catchers playing second base and shortstop, for example). I did find it interesting that his was the heaviest non-catching experience this year, though, especially because we know that Contreras was thrust into left field, in his rookie season, in the heat of a pennant race, without having played out there in several years. It underscores not only how much the Cubs wanted his bat in the lineup, but also what a gifted athlete he is. By the end of the year, of course, Contreras had mostly moved back behind the plate (his final start in left field was August 16; looking at his game log, did you remember that his first three starts with the Cubs were behind the plate, though, and he started at first base before he moved to left?).
Small sample defensive metrics are mostly useless, but we’re not trying to prove anything, right? Just having a little fun? Contreras rated out relatively poorly in left field in his 180.2 innings, with a -14.7 UZR/150 (his range and arm were rated well below average, which would seem to be exclusively because of a lack of experience, rather than a lack of ability) and -1 DRS. For the most part, that squares with my recollection of watching him in left: athleticism obvious, lack of experience in route-running and decision-making equally obvious.
The question going forward is whether any of this will matter in 2017 and beyond. Will Contreras see much time out in the field? Well, short of another injury out there somewhere, it’s doubtful.
First of all, there is Kyle Schwarber, who figures to draw most of the starts in left field next year. Second, the Cubs are loaded with so many bats right now, most of whom can move all around, that it is unlikely that you’d be resting a guy (Schwarber or maybe Anthony Rizzo at first) and would feel like you absolutely have to use Contreras as the replacement that day. Third, I think there’s simply going to be a desire by the Cubs to get Contreras as much continued, dedicated experience behind the plate as possible. There can be no question that he is the long-term catcher of the present and future for this club, and it can only help for him to work as often as possible with as many pitchers as possible. His talent back there is significant, but so is his rawness. With more time and experience, I genuinely believe Contreras can excel in all three phases of catching: (1) defensive ability (he’s mostly already there), (2) receiving pitches/framing, and (3) game management.
We might see a stray inning or two out there throughout the 2017 season, because Joe Maddon is going to use the roster’s flexibility in-game as much as possible. But, for the most part, I suspect that Willson Contreras the part-time outfielder will be a memory from the 2016 season.