After three and half seasons in the big leagues, the annual “Willson Contreras has improved his framing” headline reads like a player showing up to camp in the best shape of his life. Yeah, sure, maybe a dude dropped some weight and runs a little faster to first base, but at the end of the day, we all wonder if it’ll actually change the production on the field. As it pertains to Willson Contreras and his latest efforts to improve his pitch framing, I can’t yet definitively tell you that it will.
But I can tell you – er, well, Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic can tell you – that under the tutelage of a brand new coach, with a history of dramatic pitch framing rebirths across the league, Willson Contreras has worked hard to develop a brand new, highly specialized and visible technique that could just make a difference in 2020 and beyond (or at least as long as there isn’t an electronic strike zone).
And seeing as how he’d very easily be one of the top 2-3 catchers in baseball if he became even an average pitch-framer, I think the story is worth your time.
— The Athletic Chicago (@TheAthleticCHI) July 21, 2020
Let’s start with the new Cubs first base and catching coach, Craig Driver, the sensei to Contreras’s grasshopper. Driver, 31, began his professional coaching career with the Phillies as a bullpen catcher and receiving coach in 2018 and 2019. While there, he helped catcher Jorge Alfaro improve from the 47th most effective framer in 2017 to the *6th* most effective in 2018. And after the Phillies traded Alfaro to the Marlins for J.T. Realmuto, he helped Realmuto from from 31st in 2018 to *9th* in 2019.
There are other coaches helping out and the players, themselves, deserve credit. But in terms of a proof of concept, it’s a little tough to argue with the results. Of course, and unfortunately, this is not a one-size fits all thing. What works for one catcher won’t necessarily work for another and Driver learned that on the job.
“I definitely haven’t gotten to a point where I feel like it’s a finished product by any means,” Driver told Sharma. “It’s a constant game of adjustments for me. I was really fortunate in the fact that my manager in Philadelphia, Gabe Kapler, just kind of threw a job at me and said, ‘Hey, we think you have some really good ideas about catching and we think you can figure this out.’”
As for Contreras, I’ll save all the juiciest bits for The Athletic – it really is such a great article – but I can tell you that you’ll likely see a few noticeable things from Contreras this season. For one, he’ll have two distinct setups: one for when there are runners on base and one for when the bases are empty. The goal is to simplify his pre-pitch routine and focus more on the framing techniques they’ve been developing.
If you’ve watched Contreras catch over the years, you’ll know he’s got all sorts of different setups behind the plate, some of which, like that one with his right leg straightened all the way out to the side, look pretty strange. That’s not to say they didn’t provide a benefit, but for 2020, simplicity is the word.
For what it’s worth, Driver says he’s got different plans for each of the four Cubs catchers he’s worked with (Contreras, Victor Caratini, Josh Phegley, and P.J. Higgins), because “those are four very different bodies and very different skill sets with very different backgrounds.”
As for the framing itself, you can see a huge difference. If you’ve watched the available games so far, you’ve probably noticed that Contreras is still moving his arm as he receives the pitch – it’s still pretty exaggerated – but he’s also doing a much better job starting the process of receiving more “outside” the ball so that the natural movement is bringing it closer to the zone upon reception.
Take a look and watch this a few times to see how he’s directing his glove in a very different way:
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Wilson Contreras – Chicago Cubs Regular Season 2019 v Spring Training 2020. Up down arm/glove pattern in ‘19. Down, relaxed, up through arm/glove pattern in ‘20. Efficiency. #catching #catchers #pitchersandcatchers #pitching #pitch #baseball #catcherswag #infield #baseballfield #hat #infielder #outfielder #baseballplayer #softball #college #collegebaseball #probaseball #catcherlifestyle #majorleaguebaseball #minorleaguebaseball
As Sharma points out, “his current movement is more fluid in one direction as he moves his glove up, catches the ball and goes into the zone all in one stroke.” The idea is to take his glove from the target to the ground and then work up to the ball.” Driver gets into the specifics of how that helps.
If Contreras is able to make even marginal improvements to his pitch framing this season, it could prove hugely valuable to the Cubs in 2020, but also help them gain trust his abilities over the long-term. And sure, there may be an automated strike zone in the Major Leagues some day, but 2022 is the earliest possible year (first of the new CBA), and it might not even come then. So let’s hope these changes stick and Contreras can become the latest success story of framing guru Craig Driver.