Willson Contreras on offensive high; Cubs top Diamondbacks

Contreras’ bat is as hot as Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer and manager David Ross have ever seen it.

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Cubs catcher Willson Contreras led his team in most offensive categories entering play Saturday against the Diamondbacks.

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras led his team in most offensive categories entering play Saturday against the Diamondbacks.

AP Photos

PHOENIX — Entering the second of three games against the Diamondbacks this weekend, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras led his team in most hitting categories. Then in the Cubs’ 4-2 victory against Arizona on Saturday, he sparked a ninth-inning rally with a leadoff walk.

“This is as good as I may have ever seen Willson,” manager David Ross said this weekend. “The last series [against the Padres], I thought he carried us offensively. He was the tone-setter whenever we were going through a little bit of a lull. It seemed like his spot jump-started things when he got back up there.”

Contreras’ future with the Cubs is uncertain as he plays out his final year of club control with no apparent movement on extension talks. He has the added distraction of an arbitration hearing scheduled for June 9, a quirk of this post-lockout season.

“He’s been great,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said of the way Contreras has handled the situation. “I think everyone kind of deals with that differently. . . . But he’s been playing great and getting on base. His offensive game is as strong as I’ve seen him.”

The last two weeks, it has been as strong as anyone’s. Contreras entered Saturday batting .433 since April 30, the highest average in the majors during that span. And at least to start the season, Contreras’ strikeout rate has dramatically improved, from 28.6% last season to 17.7%.

“It’s a really long season to pay attention to stats because when you have few at-bats, they can go way up, they can go way down,” Contreras said. “But I have noticed that I’ve been making more contact than years before, and that’s something that I worked on during my offseason.”

He concentrated on being short to the ball.

Again, numbers can shift dramatically over the course of a season, but in 113 plate appearances, Contreras was making contact on 81.2% of pitches in the strike zone entering Saturday, up from 76.9% last season, according to Statcast.

Plus, he’s hitting the ball hard. Contreras was on pace for his highest average exit velocity (93.9 mph) since Statcast began tracking it in 2015.

“Everybody’s throwing 97, 99 [mph],” he said.

“And we’ve been facing really tough pitching. With that type of pitching, my mindset is just to make contact. Whatever happens after that is going to happen.”

Contreras reiterated several times this spring that his focus was on competing every day, not on his contract or trade speculation.

Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo said something similar last year, but when asked about putting contract uncertainty behind him, he told reporters in Chicago this week, “I didn’t realize how much of a burden it was.”

Rockies outfielder Kris Bryant, who went through the same process with the Cubs last year, told the Sun-Times in spring training that he didn’t think Contreras needed any advice.

‘‘He’s going to go out there and play with heart and passion, and I’m sure he won’t even think about it the whole year,” Bryant said. “That’s just who Willson is. That’s why he’s fun to play with.’’

From what Ross has observed, that’s exactly what Contreras has done.

“I think he knows he’s going to be a really good major-league player for a really long time; he’s gonna make a lot of money,” Ross said. “And he’s just focused on helping support his teammates and having a really good season and have fun playing baseball. And I’ve seen that pretty much every day.”

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