The newly anointed (unofficial) captain of the Chicago Cubs returned ahead of their thrilling win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 4. The team activated catcher Willson Contreras from the 10-day IL after dealing with a minor knee sprain. Since his return, he’s hit the ball reasonably hard with little to show for it at times, slashing only .192/.250/.308 with one home run, two walks, and 11 strikeouts in 28 plate appearances. Finishing out the season strong is important for many Cubs players. How important is it for Contreras? How should the Cubs use him down the stretch? Let’s dive in and answer those questions.
The Importance of Contreras at the Dish
Willy the Beast has been a vital part of the Cubs’ success over the years. This season, he’s gone through peaks and valleys at the plate. While he was robbed of a game-tying RBI extra-base hit on Sunday, September 5 on a terrific play by Ben Gamel, it was nice to him hit the ball hard immediately following his return. After a couple of singles on Monday, Contreras homered on Tuesday, September 7. After a few more games, he’s now batting .224 with a .737 OPs and 18 home runs.
Looking at the overall numbers, they aren’t all that impressive to the naked eye. When you factor in just how important he is to the pitching staff and how much work he puts in to prepare for opposing teams’ hitters daily, you understand how difficult it is to perform at such a high level as a hitter consistently. Then, we also need to factor in the team before Robinson Chirinos was acquired. The Cubs went through five backup catchers before they found a quality backup. Austin Romine was supposed to be that guy all season, but he dealt with injuries.
While the surface stats aren’t appealing, and he’s striking out at the highest rate of his career (bottom-ten percentile), there are some positives in Contreras’ profile this year. For starters, he has the best hard-hit rate of his career (48.4 percent), which sits in the 86th percentile. Meanwhile, he has the worst BABIP of his career (.285). That alone screams positive regression is coming. On top of that, Willy has a career-best average exit velocity of 91.3 mph, nearly two full ticks higher than his previous career-best set a year ago.
Undoubtedly, the whiffs and strikeouts are an issue, but his quality of contact metrics look great. If anything could be causing him to strikeout as much as he has, it’s his passiveness. He’s swung at a career-low 45 percent of pitches this year while also swinging at only 65.7 percent of pitches in the zone. Both are below average swing rates. He’s still taking his fair share of walks (10.4 percent, in line with career-best), and he’s chasing far less than he ever has before at only 27.2 percent.
The Importance of Contreras Behind the Plate
Defensively, as a game-caller and pitch-framer, Contreras has tremendously improved over the years. A lot of that can be credited to the presence of David Ross. In years where Ross was present, as either a player or manager, Contreras has had a positive “Runs From Extra Strikes,” a baseball savant metric that converts strikes to runs saved.
Last season, Ross’ first year as manager, Contreras ranked in the 86th percentile. Expanding on that, during Ross' final season as a player in 2016 (Willson’s rookie year), he ranked in the 72nd percentile in pitch-framing, 22 percent better than league average. The year following, when Ross was gone, Contreras ranked 31st percentile. Then, in 2018 and 2019, he was just below league average, sitting in the mid-to-high 40's. As it stands now, Contreras is once again 72nd percentile this year.
Furthermore, his arm strength is unteachable. The way he back picks runners at first base will always be a thing of beauty. He hasn’t had his best season throwing out base runners, but it’s not all on him. The pitchers need to do a better job of holding runners and allowing him to catch them. For example, Jake Arrieta has never been quick to the plate.
Leadership is one of Contreras’ best qualities as a player. Not only does it seem he’s a clubhouse leader, but he’s a leader on the field. Willson could play a pivotal role in their development under his guidance with the current group of young pitchers the Cubs have.
Heading into the future, a permanent designated hitter in the National League is all but a sure thing. Getting him more opportunities to stay in the lineup and off his feet will be great. However, he serves the Cubs best behind the plate.
Wear and Tear
At the time of the injury, Contreras led all MLB catchers with 794 innings caught. He ranks seventh in the majors in innings caught this season despite missing time due to the IL stint.
Last season, the Cubs had the luxury of using Contreras sparingly as the team’s designated hitter because of the universal DH rule implemented for the 2020 shortened season. Contreras served as the team’s DH 18 times. That goes a long way when we think about how taxing the catcher position is and how important it is to save a catcher’s legs.
Along with being taxing on the legs, it’s a grueling position in just about every aspect. Remember when he took a near 100 MPH fastball from Craig Kimbrel off the wrist? Also, think about how many times he had to get down to block pitches in the dirt. Of course, Contreras is one of the best in the business at scooping pitches with only his glove while refraining from using his chest protector. But, the fact remains, regularly catching is extremely wearing.
Not to mention, Contreras has been hit by the 12th-most pitches in baseball (13 HBPs) and the second-most of any catcher. To find him on the HBP leaderboard on Fangraphs, I had to manually change the filter to a minimum of 10 plate appearances for him to pop up on the list. Meaning, Contreras has been hit by that many pitches, and he isn’t even among qualified hitters. Translation: he’s getting hit by pitches at a very high rate. Oh, and one more thing, he also led the league in HBPs last year with 14 IN 57 GAMES. No other catcher even came close. J.T. Realmuto had the next most with six. That’s less than ideal for a catcher who already gets beat up as much as he does.
How Should the Cubs Handle Him the Rest of the Season?
Simply put, they should use him sparingly. I’m talking three to four games per week max. From a leadership standpoint, it’s evident that he is highly valued and a significant asset to the team. On the performance side of things, once again, he’s very valuable and is the best catching option they have. Since the start of the 2019 season, Contreras has the fourth-best fWAR among all catchers (6.0).
The Cubs told us they wanted to ease him back, and it was a planned off day when he wasn’t in the starting lineup on Sunday, September 5, the day after his first game back. Since then, Contreras has been in the Cubs’ starting lineup every game. Granted, they’ve been able to get him some rest, along with the rest of the team, because of built-in scheduled off days. Nonetheless, it is entirely unnecessary to overdo it or run him out there every four days with the occasional off day when the fifth spot in the rotation comes up or the team has a scheduled off day.
Ideally, you’d like to see Contreras finish the season hitting well. However, in the long run, this season doesn’t matter. Will Contreras be included in the team’s long-term plans? That remains to be determined, but let’s assume he is, and the Cubs ink him to an extension. If that happens, they’ll want the best possible version of Contreras moving forward. Even if he’s not in their future plans, playing at a high level in the early part of next season could help the Cubs get top value for him at the trade deadline.
Salvador Perez and Buster Posey are two players who come to mind when thinking about Contreras. Both catchers have a lot of miles on them, and yet they are having remarkable 2021 campaigns. Posey opted out of the 2020 COVID-19 season to help care for his children. Perez missed all of 2019 due to Tommy John surgery. They both were able to save their legs, one way or the other, and come back rejuvenated. At the age of 34, Posey is hitting .300 with an .894 OPS and 17 home runs. At the age of 31, Perez has hit the third-most home runs of anyone this year (42). He’s three homers away from tying Johnny Bench’s single-season mark for catchers. Oh, and by the way, if we look at home runs per plate appearance, Perez was on pace to hit the same number last year if given the same number of plate appearances as this year.
I still don’t think we’ve seen Contreras’ ceiling offensively. I firmly believe, and I stand by this, Contreras could hit 35-40 home runs one year.
In summary, this was a long-winded way of saying, the Cubs should rest Contreras as often as possible. The team has three built-in scheduled off days remaining out of their final 18 games. I know, that’s a lot, but they have six games in six days starting tonight. If Contreras starts more than four of them, I’ll be a little disappointed. They struggled to find him days off earlier in the season because they didn’t have a serviceable backup catcher and were trying to compete. Find the time now. Get him some at-bats. Play him with some of the younger pitchers vying for rotation spots next year. However, as fun as it is watching him play, please, don’t waste or jeopardize his best years of baseball in a non-competitive month of September. Thanks.
P.S. Make sure you have a solid, durable backup catcher going into next year.