Over the past year, Willson Contreras has been able to turn himself into one of the best framing pitchers in Major League Baseball. I know, I know. I’m still getting used to it, too.
Brett and Michael have each covered this subject once already, but because of how impressive, consistent, impactful, and apparently sustainable his changes have been, I think it’s worth another look from a different angle.
In 2019, Contreras converted just 48.5 percent of pitches in the shadow zone (essentially the edges of the strike zone, or “roughly one ball width inside and one ball wide outside of the zone”) into called strikes, which placed him 33rd in the league. Fast forward one season, throw in a new catching coach, a different framing strategy, and a lot of hard work, and Contreras is currently at 51.4 percent, which is 11th overall, per Statcast. (For what it’s worth, Victor Caratini ranks 7th overall at 52.6 percent).
Limit that qualifying threshold to catchers who’ve seen at least 750 pitches, and Contreras moves up to second best in the league, behind only J.T. Realmuto. I think we can all agree that when you’re in the same framing conversation as Realmuto, you’re doing something very right.
So, we know that Contreras has improved his framing this year by an absolutely dramatic amount – nearly a worst-to-first situation. But what’s the relative impact of that improvement? How much is it worth?
Well, by Statcast’s measure, Contreras’ framing efforts have equated to an extra run for the year solely on the stolen strikes, which, as you can imagine, ranks quite highly across the league given the limited opportunties:
1. Omar Narvaez: 3
tie, J.T. Realmuto: 3
3. Austin Barnes: 2
tie, Yadi Molina: 2
tie, Yasmani Grandal: 2
6. Willson Contreras: 1
tie, James McCann: 1
tie, Victor Caratini: 1
tie, Stephen Voight: 1
tie, Manny Pina: 1
Really take a moment and consider the names above Contreras on this list. He is in elite framing company, and if he were to keep this up over the course of a full, regular season, the impact would be significant – especially considering where he was before this season:
2017: -5 runs/extra strikes (45th)
2018: -10 runs/extra strikes (55th)
2019: -4 runs/extra strikes (45th)
2020: +1 runs/extra strikes (10th)
In 2018, for example, Contreras’s framing COST the Cubs 10 extra runs. This year, he’s +1 extra run in a tiny portion of a regular season. Extrapolate that to a full regular season. According to the rough conversion of runs to wins, that’s the difference of nearly two full wins over the course of the season. Talk about flipping a narrative.
Speaking of which, Jon Lester talked to Marquee about how important Contreras’ framing can be to his fellow teammates earlier this season – and if anyone knows the perks of pitching to a great catcher, it’s Lester:
“He just looks relaxed. He looks confident in what he’s doing. Anytime you do something for a long time and somebody tells you, ‘hey, you need to completely revamp it,’ there’s the doubt. You have to buy into it and that’s hard to do in the middle of a big league season like he was trying to do last year.
So for him to have that whole offseason and then obviously the extra time coming into this camp, he just looks free. He looks comfortable, you can tell he feels confident back there and to me, that falls into the pitch-calling as well. He’s confident in what he’s doing back there catching and calling. It just makes our job a lot easier.”
At the end of the day, though, no one will benefit from this newfound ability more than Contreras. Over the last couple of seasons, we all know question marks have surrounded some areas of his game. Despite the pop in his bat and electrifying arm, the worry about Contreras’ longterm impact at the catching position was somewhat justified. Work was required, but a change like this shows us that – even at 28-years-old – he’s still very much capable of adding to his game.
Framing could very well become irrelevant if the league adds an electronic strike zone at some point in the future (Michael: I tend to doubt that’s coming as soon as people think), but until then, Contreras has improved his value to the Cubs quickly and dramatically.
Keep up the awesome work, Willy.
Michael Cerami contributed to this post.