The wild pitch is rarely entirely the fault of the pitcher or the catcher. And sometimes, it’s not really anyone’s fault.
Sometimes, you want to bury a pitch in the dirt, succeed in doing so, and the catcher can’t quite stop that baby from getting by or ricocheting wildly. Sometimes, the pitcher simply uncorks one so wild that no catcher would ever be able to stop it. Other times, a simple bouncer that should be stopped every time squirts away.
That is to say, if you’re going to attribute wild pitches to anyone in particular, you’d better be careful not to do so with too much hostility, and you’d better have a lot of data.
On that front, I’d like to talk about somewhere you see Willson Contreras atop the league leaderboard by quite a margin: wild pitches allowed. Contreras has been behind the plate for a whopping 19 wild pitches already, four higher than the next closest catcher (Austin Hedges, who, incidentally, has caught nearly 40 more innings than Contreras). Contreras was behind the plate for 17 wild pitches last year in 389.2 innings caught, which, prorated over a full season’s worth of catching innings, would have put him right around the top ten. This squares with the rough sense of what my eyes have told me, which is that the Cubs sure seem to be suffering from a lot of blockable wild pitches these days.
But is Contreras actually “bad” at blocking pitches?
Well, I phrase the stat as “Contreras was behind the plate,” because again, you cannot pin them all of the wild pitches on Contreras. The Cubs have had a lot of pitchers with nasty stuff these last two years, and also some guys with command troubles. As a team, the Cubs have the second most wild pitches in baseball (22), and they had the 4th most last year (80).
Further, although the numbers aren’t out yet for 2017, BP’s advanced catching stats rated Contreras as among the top 15 blocking catchers last year by total “blocking runs” (despite him having among the fewest chances in the top 15).
My eyes say this has been an issue, and there have been a ton of wild pitches, but it’s entirely possible that Contreras “leading the league” in wild pitches right now is just one of those things where a few bad bounces, a few misplays, a higher-proportion of bad pitches, and some particularly notable wild pitches (like last night’s dropped third strike that allowed a run to score) have all conspired to make him stand out here in the early going.
We know the ability to block poorly-thrown pitches is a skill that can be developed, even if it’s not entirely within the catcher’s control on a per-pitch basis (kind of like taking walks is something we know batters can develop as a skill, but it’s not as if they control where the pitches go).
Whether Contreras is currently not-so-good at the skill, or is actually already decent, it’s reasonable to say he can get better. Contreras is a talented catcher already, with the physical tools to be very, very good. Yeah, he’s had some notable errors recently, but his 5.1 total defensive value is second most in baseball, and we see almost nightly the impact he has on the running game. His 24 assists are second most in baseball, and his 11 caught stealing is tied for the most. The dude has some serious talent.
That’s why I believe fully that he can and will improve at blocking pitches as he gets more experience, and has more time to dedicate to honing the technique. I also want to re-emphasize that I’m not pinning all of the wild pitches on Contreras, because there have unquestionably been many that no one was stopping. But, given how little time Contreras has had to solely focus on developing this craft – think of everything he’s had on his plate the last couple years – I think this is a particular area where he can get better.
And, hey, maybe all it will take is some lessons from Yadi Molina on proper stickum usage.