MESA, Ariz. — It was still February, less than a week into spring training.
Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, who gained far more attention last year for a late-season swoon than his fast start and All-Star selection, practiced wearing a T-shirt bearing the only five words he thinks are worth saying about his upcoming season:
Don’t Believe Me
“There’s a lot of people that doubt [me] because of last year,” he said. “Now I’m going to be quiet and just [wear] the shirt.”
It may seem an unusual approach for those used to seeing the high-energy, animated — and loud — Contreras at Wrigley Field during his first three years in the big leagues.
But even as the sharp young catcher has found his activist voice in support of the people of his native Venezuela and for regime change there, he promises a more muted response on the field this year than the emotion-driven personality fans might expect.
And make no mistake: Since he showed off his “don’t believe me” shirt and a less boisterous approach this spring, the results have been loud and clear.
Never mind the actual numbers this spring, which are strong — including another hit Tuesday in his return from a jammed finger.
The tweak he has made to the rhythm and timing of his swing to better catch up to -velocity seems to be working.
Contreras’ throwing arm also is as strong as ever, with him putting on a clinic on back picks and throwing out would-be base stealers at second and third.
But the change that has the potential to make the most significant difference for the team this year is the quarter-turn technique he’s using to receive the ball and try to improve on the biggest weakness of his game: framing pitches.
“It’s a basic move. It’s not anything that’s groundbreaking,” catching coach Mike Borzello said. “It’s a target, and it’s kind of a handshake with your left hand. It adds rhythm, and it allows you to protect against the most difficult pitch, which is the one that’s thrown at your left knee or below. So it solves two problems.”
If it helps Contreras climb from the bottom in receiving scores among major-league catchers to at least the middle of the pack, it could be a boon to the pitching staff.
A greater emphasis on grading catchers raised the stakes on an effort Borzello has been preaching for the last two years with Contreras. And Contreras’ brother, a catcher in the Braves’ system, recently suggested the same thing.
“I started doing it, and it feels good,” said Contreras, a converted third baseman. “Now I’m going to show the target, but I’m going to quarter-turn a little bit; that way my hand gets relaxed, and I have a rhythm behind the plate. Because I was too stiff, too tough.”
Said Borzello: “Obviously, his receiving has been the area of deficiency, and he knows that. It took time [for him] to realize that ‘OK, we’ve got to try something different.’ ”
“It can make a huge difference. But it’s one thing to know how to do it and then take it into a game. It’s another to carry it through every single pitch for 162 games, plus the postseason.”
So far so good with about one week left before the season opens.
“I’m excited about where he is right now,” Borzello said. “He’s super focused on it. I think it’s the first time he feels comfortable with a different style that seems to be progressing in the right direction.”
A year ago, a common question in camp was whether Contreras could become an MVP candidate after an injury cut short a possible bid in 2017. Now it’s about bouncing back from a poor finish.
The biggest difference might be that Contreras doesn’t seem to be thinking about MVPs or more All-Star games as this season opens.
“If you ask me, yes,” he said of whether he’ll be an All-Star again. “But you know how baseball works. You never know.
“I don’t take anything for granted. I’m just going to keep working, keep improving, keep controlling my emotions — that’s a big part of this year. And see what happens.”