Cubs manager David Ross believes Willson Contreras’ evolution from bat-first catcher to all-around player is nearly complete.
Catcher is arguably the most demanding position in baseball, and many backstops never find the right balance between what they do at the plate versus what they do behind it. When he came up for the Cubs in 2016, Contreras showed he could deliver with his bat right away. He has a career OPS of .819 and consistently has hit for power since his rookie season.
But the question was always whether he could grow into the complete package and hone his game-calling and pitch-framing skills, too. In 2018, he was well below league average in pitch framing, but by last year, he had climbed to slightly above, and he had a career-best fielding percentage last season.
For his part, Contreras isn’t focused on making improvements just for his own sake.
“I just don’t think about it, to be honest,” he said. “I’m just trying to be a guy that helps a team to win as many ballgames that I can.”
At times, that has meant carrying the offense with his bat, and at other times, that has meant playing good defense and handling his pitching staff. Lately, Contreras has offered both.
“It’s a really hard skill set to find,” Ross said. “We put so much importance on game-calling, pitch-framing, the defensive side and what you do for your pitchers — that in itself could be enough for a lot of teams — and yet he comes out, and he’s a two-time All-Star, can really hit, he’s got power, is a really tough at-bat for us. He really brings us energy on a nightly basis.”
For most catchers, it’s tough to do things like shake off a bad night at the plate when they’re still needed to guide a pitcher through a rocky inning; they carry a sense of responsibility for a pitcher’s performance in a way the rest of the roster doesn’t. Where an outfielder might be able to check out mentally for a moment, a catcher never can.
At 28, Contreras is still young, but he has amassed a lot of baseball experience, which has facilitated his growth. Ross said he sees similarities between Contreras’ trajectory as a catcher and his own.
“You learn more the older you get of how to study,” Ross said. “The more you know the league or hitters, it can kind of speed up the process. Then you find out what works for you, whether it’s rewriting the scouting report, watching video, going through it with your starting pitcher. You learn to be a little more efficient in how you work. A lot of that changes with your batting practice or your defensive drills, but also with the studying that catchers have to do — that evolves as well, and how you streamline those things.”
While the rest of the Cubs’ offense struggled the first two weeks, Contreras was the lone bright spot, leading the team in batting average and on-base percentage and tying Kris Bryant for home runs. He was the spark plug in a win over the Braves on Saturday with homers in the first and third innings.
There’s still room for improvement, but Contreras has long since won over the clubhouse.
“He’s as passionate and hardworking as anybody we have,” Ross said. “He’s got the nickname ‘Killer’ around here because he’s got that killer instinct. He wants to win and does everything he can to help his team win.”