With power surge, Cubs’ Willson Contreras joins elite hitting company

With his July-August surge, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras has joined an elite group.

Among players 25 and younger who caught at least half their games, only 34 have hit 20 or more home runs in a season. Those 34 combined to produce 52 such seasons, including five by the Reds’ Johnny Bench.

In his age-25 season, Contreras entered play Monday with 21 homers, including seven in July and five in August. Twenty have come as a catcher and one as a left fielder.

There are seven Hall of Famers on the list of young catchers with 20-plus homers in a season. Most powered up younger than Contreras, with the first such seasons at 20 for Gary Carter, at 21 for Bench, at 22 for Carlton Fisk and at 24 for Gabby Hartnett, Mike Piazza and Yogi Berra.

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras hits a solo home run in the third inning against the Washington Nationals at Wrigley Field on August 6, 2017. | Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Hall of Famer whose first 20-homer-plus season came at the same age as Contreras was Ivan Rodriguez, who hit 20 for the 1997 Rangers. Rodriguez finished with 311 homers in his 21-year career, but he’s even more notable as the all-time leader with 28.6 defensive wins above replacement (as listed at Baseball-Reference.com).

Twelve non-Hall of Fame catchers hit 20 or more homers for the first time in their age-25 season. Six are active: Contreras, Geovany Soto, Carlos Santana, Matt Wieters, Salvador Perez and Victor Martinez.

Let’s check out the six who have retired:

Bill Freehan: 20 homers for 1967 Tigers at age 25. Career high: 25 homers at age 26. Totals: 200 homers, 44.7 bWAR in 15 seasons.

Ed Bailey: 28 homers for 1956 Reds at age 25 (also his career high). Totals: 155 homers, 27.2 bWAR in 14 seasons.

Gus Triandos: 21 homers for 1956 Orioles at age 25. Career high: 25 homers at age 27. Totals: 167 homers, 13.9 bWAR in 13 seasons.

J.P. Arencibia: 23 homers for 2011 Blue Jays at age 25 (also his career high). Totals: 80 homers, 2.7 bWAR in six seasons.

Javy Lopez: 23 homers for 1996 Braves at age 25. Career high: 43 homers at age 32. Totals: 260 homers, 29.6 bWAR in 15 seasons.

Mike Lieberthal: 20 homers for 1997 Phillies at age 25. Career high: 31 homers at age 27. Totals: 150 homers, 15.2 bWAR in 14 seasons.

All but Arencibia had staying power, with 13 or more major-league seasons. And Arencibia is a special case, with 21 homers and a .592 OPS in 2013 making him the only player in major-league history with 20 or more homers and an OPS lower than .600 in a season.

Contreras entered play Monday hitting .281 with 32 walks. Among major-league catchers with at least 200 plate appearances, Contreras’ .881 OPS trails only the Giants’ Buster Posey (.896) and his 3.5 bWAR trails only Posey (4.1) and the Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto (3.6).

There are defensive challenges. Baseball Info Solutions’ defensive runs saved lists Contreras at minus-2, mostly because of minus-6 strike-zone runs. That’s mirrored in his 16.1 runs below average in StatCorner’s pitch-framing metric.

Improved framing will be important to him, but Contreras is on the kind of offensive track that usually leads to a long career.

Follow me on Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

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