When the various positional power rankings came out earlier this winter, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras most often found himself in an elite group near the top of the rankings, along with Buster Posey, Gary Sanchez, and J.T. Realmuto.
But while he was consistently included in that highest tier, he was not given top (or even second) billing, because his one perceived weakness – poor receiving/pitch-framing – stood out as a bigger relative weakness than what the others dealt with.
In fact, most pundits seem to believe that if Contreras could shore up this one final piece of his game, he’d have a pretty strong bid for best-catcher-in-baseball honors, even over Posey, the current high-water mark behind the plate.
Unfortunately, after posting some pretty solid numbers behind the plate in 2016 (when he was working under the direct tutelage of two of the game’s best framers in Miguel Montero and David Ross), Contreras took a big step backwards last season.
Here’s some of what Brett had to say about it earlier this offseason: “Willson Contreras was the biggest offender for the Cubs in 2017. For all the great things he does behind the plate (not to mention at it), he struggled with framing by the metrics: his negative 6.3 Framing Runs was 98th out of 110 big league catchers.” Ouch.
And while you can’t attribute everything the pitching staff does to the catchers’ framing skills (or lack thereof), the Cubs, as a team, saw their 24.3% strikeout rate (3rd in baseball) in 2016 drop to 23.6% (8th) in 2017, while their 8.3% walk rate (18th) increased to 9.1% (24th). A lost strike here, an added ball there? It’s *possible* there was a relationship.
In any case, framing was a bit of a problem last season, and something Contreras needs to work on if he wants to take that next step into becoming the best catcher in baseball, while helping his dynamite pitching staff truly be the best one the Cubs have had in years.
Fortunately there might be a very obvious – and, fingers crossed, easy – way to address this problem.
Apparently, last season, the Cubs changed the way Contreras received balls (vis a vis 2016), and now having seen that it didn’t work, they’re going to switch back. “Last year we tried something to help us,” Contreras told the Chicago Tribune. “It didn’t, so we’re going back to my old receiving that went way better than last year.”
[Brett: The specifics of the change are not discussed, but I wonder if it has to do with either the way he receives low strikes (a problem area for most catchers), or how he quieted his body a lot in 2017. You wouldn’t think that would *hurt* the framing metrics, since you don’t want to be bouncing around back there. But if being more still and quiet made him less comfortable, then it’s possible for him, specifically, it was an issue.]
On top of that, Cubs catching coach Mike Borzello mentions that last season for Contreras was mostly about game-calling, learning how to handle the pitching staff, familiarizing himself with the Cubs scouting-report system, before, ultimately, leveraging that information on a daily basis.
Pause for a minute, and remember that not only was 2017 Contreras’ first full season with the big league Cubs and his first as the team’s starting catcher, he wasn’t always a backstop in his professional career. So this is all very new to him and he’s *still* among the youngest catchers in the game. Put differently, there’s a reason most catchers break into the Majors later than just about every other position – there is so much skill and nuance required for the position, and that requires years of experience.
So this season, with a reversion to his previous receiving style, and a greater emphasis on pitch receiving/framing in general, there is reason to believe that Contreras can take that final step forward (that’s right – there’s information-backed optimism for you!). And if he does, he can help himself and his rotation become the best in baseball.