For most of the season, it’s been all too convenient to characterize Willson Contreras as yet another struggling member of the Chicago Cubs core. He didn’t get it quite as bad from fans as some of the other guys (mostly because he’s been healthy and has so dramatically improved his pitch framing), but as always, nuance requires effort, and some folks don’t really like tweets about expected production when a guy is hitting .220.
But the fact of the matter is for most of the season Contreras’ expected production based on the underlying peripherals (like how hard he’s hitting the ball and at what launch angle, in addition to walks, strikeouts, BABIP, etc.) far exceeded not only his actual production for the 2020 season, but also his actual and expected production highs from throughout his entire career.
Contreras xwOBA Leaderboard (By Year)
1. 2020 (.370)*
2. 2017 (.363)
3. 2016 (.352)
4. 2019 (.346)
5. 2018 (.307)
Contreras wOBA Leaderboard (By Year)
1. 2019 (.368)
2. 2016 (.363)
3. 2017 (.362)
4. 2020 (.340)
5. 2018 (.321)
If Willson Contreras’ actual wOBA met his expected rate, he’d be one of the top-40 hitters in MLB. And that would equate to something like 130-140 wRC+ or a 850-900 OPS, if that’s your favorite flavor of offensive statistic.
In any case, last night, it all came together for our favorite Cubs catcher last night, as he reached base FIVE times, including four hits (two doubles) and a walk, tying a career-high in hits.
Contreras also happened to own the two hardest hit balls of the game – a 109.2 MPH single off Sonny Gray in the 2nd, and this 113.0 MPH double off Nate Jones in the 8th:
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) September 11, 2020
Contreras’ average exit velocity this season is now up over 90 MPH for the first time in his career, and he’s also enjoying his highest average launch angle (9.2 degrees). Unsurprisingly, he’s hitting the sweet spot of his bat at a career-best 39% of the time with the highest barrel% of his entire career (12.0%).
So what did last night do for his numbers? A LOT.
Coming into the game, Contreras was slashing an exactly league-average .239/.342/.399 (100 wRC+), with an 8.7% walk rate and a 26.7% strikeout rate through 161 plate appearances. Five *excellent* plate appearances later, the Cubs catcher was slashing .261/.361/.430 with a 113 wRC+, a 9.0% walk rate and a 25.9% strikeout rate.
Part of the lesson here is internalizing how predictive expected production can be when the underlying peripherals are SO MUCH stronger than the actual results, and the other is that we’re still at such an early point in what would be a normal regular season. Contreras doesn’t even have 175 PAs this year, though he’d normally end up somewhere between 450-550 in a regular season.
In any case, when you combine all this information and lump in the base running, defense, pitching framing, and everything else that goes into this game, Contreras (1.1) ranks as the 4th best catcher in MLB by fWAR, closely behind Austin Nola (1.6), J.T. Realmuto (1.5), and Yasmani Grandal (1.2). If his offense had merely matched his peripherals, it’s easy to see how he could’ve led this group, to say nothing if he were actually getting LUCKY (which, you know, does happen!). But even as things are, it’s very easy to be thrilled with his season.
Behind the plate, at the plate, and in the dugout, Willson Contreras is having an excellent year. Last night was just the best game yet.