Yesterday, MLB announced that Willson Contreras had been selected as the starting catcher for the National League in the 2018 MLB All-Star Game, and he was as excited an emotional as you would expect/want him to be:
ICYMI: There is crying in baseball. pic.twitter.com/1khWRJLpcN
— MLB (@MLB) July 9, 2018
Although I’m sure many players become emotional the first time they’re acknowledged as an All-Star (it is a huge moment, after all!), Contreras has had a longer road than most. He signed on with the Cubs as a 16-year-old third baseman out of Venezuela back in 2009. So not only did he switch-positions half-way through his professional career, he started his pro journey at just 16 years old! While guys like Kris Bryant or Kyle Schwarber stayed relatively close to home all the way through college, Contreras was off on his own, often in foreign countries, from a very young age. That’s just a trip, man. And now he’s made it.
I’m sure reaching the big leagues at all was a big moment for him, but the first time you become an All-Star must be an entirely different I made it feeling. He’s the best catcher in his league this year and now it’s a kind of official.
At least, that’s what manager Joe Maddon believes: “….Willson, on the other hand, he’s pretty much fought, fought, fought his way,” Maddon said, via Cubs.com. “Now he is the best catcher in the National League. I think he’s the best catcher in baseball.”
If you think back to the winter, you might recall Willson Contreras saying something similar at the Cubs convention: “I know that I have a lot of talent and I thank God every day for giving me this kind of talent that I have. In my mind, I want to be the best catcher in the game for a long time.”
Contreras went onto say, more controversially to some, that he knows he’s going to be better than Yadier Molina and Buster Posey, who represent the old guard of top-of-the-line big league catchers. Molina wasn’t too pleased about those comments at the time, but Contreras has certainly put his best foot forward this year.
By WAR, Contreras (2.6) has been the second most valuable catcher in all of baseball this season, behind only J.T. Realmuto (3.5 WAR), who’s having himself one hell of a year. Contreras has Realmuto on games played, OBP, and most of the advanced defensive ratings, but Realmuto has him on average, slugging, homers, and overall offensive production. Had Realmuto won the starter spot over Contreras, we wouldn’t have been able to argue it too much.
HOWEVA, there’s really no question that Contreras (2.6 WAR, 126 wRC+, 5.8 Def) has been the better catcher than Buster Posey (1.8 WAR, 116 wRC+, 3.9 Def) or Yadier Molina (1.3 WAR, 119 wRC+, 1.6 Def), no matter which way you slice it.*
So while he may have a little more room to grow in the debate on top backstop in MLB, I think Contreras (and Realmuto, who’s also an All-Star for that matter) have officially relieved the old guard of duty. There’s some new catchers in town, and they’re getting recognized.
*Well, without getting into framing, the importance of which is inarguable, but the translation-to-precise-value of which is still subject to debate.