If he survives the winter on the Cubs roster, Willson Contreras will likely be one of just two current Cubs penned into a specific spot for the Opening Day lineup in 2022 (Nick Madrigal being the other, according to Jed Hoyer). And so it feels worth giving him a little love for a nice end to the season, offensively, especially after returning from the injured list with a knee sprain in early September.
Since returning from the IL (67 PAs), Contreras has slashed .263/.358/.509, which is roughly 29% better than the league average hitter, and 40% better than average catcher in MLB this season. His strikeout rate has been elevated during this final stretch (29.9%), but so has his walk rate (11.9%). Obviously, it’s all a pretty small sample, but it’s also generally been a productive one.
Especially because, there have been some really nice peripherals.
Exit Velocity and Launch Angle
Over this final stretch of games, Contreras’ average exit velocity has been an astounding 95.3 MPH. That’s not a number he’s likely to keep up throughout the year (if he did, he’d be tied with Giancarlo Stanton for second highest in MLB), but hopefully that demonstrates just how thoroughly he’s been smacking the ball lately.
Similarly, he’s got a 15.8% barrel rate over this stretch, indicating that he’s making hard contact and doing so at an optimum launch angle quite a bit more than he has historically (9.1% career rate).
On the flip side, he’s hitting too many ground balls in this stretch, but he’s kept enough in the air (with enough thump) to make it all useful.
Using All Fields
And this is probably my favorite part. Willson Contreras is spraying the ball all over the field this past month. Here’s a look at his batted ball distribution this September versus his career.
Using all three fields isn’t strictly a good thing, some batters achieve more success by trying to pull the ball for more power, but Contreras certainly feels like the type of hitter who would benefit from an all-fields approach (he’s got plenty of power to all fields/doesn’t need to pull it for pop). That distribution (alongside the higher average exit velocity and ground ball rate) also helps explain why his BABIP would be slightly elevated during this stretch. And that sort of even grouping tends to lend itself to a batter taking what he’s given at the plate, as opposed to forcing something his way, which is another sign of a mature offensive approach.
Contreras is also making contact on 86.4% of pitches in the zone this September, compared to 80% for his career. He’s swinging at fewer pitches in the zone, so it isn’t a total coup, but he he is also swinging less overall. And generally speaking, that seems to be working for him: 13.0% whiff rate during this stretch versus a 16.0% whiff rate for the season and a 14.9% for his career.
For the season as a whole, Contreras is slashing .231/.336/.430 (107 wRC+), which is generally below where he’s been throughout most of his career, but still a healthy overall line for a catcher, and above average overall.
And for the season, Statcast thinks he deserved slightly better results (.339 wOBA) than he actually achieved (.333 wOBA). So when you throw in the highest overall hardhit% (48.3%) and walk rate (10.9%) of his career, it’s pretty easy to call this season a success for Contreras.
What’s Next for Contreras and the Cubs?
After six more games, Contreras will enter the offseason before his final season under contract with the Cubs. And his future with the team is pretty unclear. To me, there are three most likely paths for him going forward, all of which depend on what the Cubs are able to do this offseason.
If the Cubs are unable to add anything of significance to this team ahead of 2022 (in the long or short-term), a trade isn’t entirely off the table. As Brett had put it recently, that’s basically just a version of the conversation that happened in July with Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javy Báez. Contreras is far from his peak value, but he clearly isn’t in a valley either, and catcher trades tend to happen in the offseason rather than the trade deadline, making it a winter-or-bust type of move for the Cubs. With all that said … Without any upper level catching depth, I find this pretty unlikely. Maybe if Miguel Amaya was healthy and productive this year it’d be a different story, but that’s not what happened.
If the Cubs surprise us all with some heavy-duty free agent spending over the long-haul, the Cubs might be wise to extend Willson Contreras before the winter is up. Having a productive, veteran catcher – and one of the final World Series players – with the team over this transition can have a ton of benefits for the Cubs both on the field and in the clubhouse, and especially with a new or young starting staff. This is my preferred route, but still not the most likely one, as far as I can tell (plus, it takes two to tango and the Cubs have had some serious issues getting their star players to extend over the years).
Finally, if the Cubs *are* able to use their financial might this offseason, but elect for short-term, lightning-in-a-bottle type signings, as we generally expect, they might be wise to stand pat with Contreras and just let him play out the final year of his deal. If the Cubs short-term signings work out and Contreras is again productive, you might be able to contend as soon as next season and tackle what to do next after another year of data. And maybe you get a better deal on Contreras, as he ages up another year. By contrast, the Cubs should have a better idea of their long-term catching situation (vis a vis Amaya) and whether or not the team actually needs to commit more money to him on an extension (whether that’s a big-money deal or not).
Along the same lines, while a mid-season catcher trade is more difficult to pull off, it’s not impossible. And if the Cubs are looking like sellers at the deadline, perhaps there’s a perfect match out there for the Cubs to take advantage of. If not, Contreras could walk at the end of the year, and, depending on the new CBA, net the Cubs some draft pick compensation.
In any case, it seems most likely to me that Contreras will play at least one more year with the Cubs, and his strong performance to end the season should encourage you about the expected productivity of that year – at least, from his perspective.