‘What to say when’: Catcher Willson Contreras’ words carry weight with young Cubs pitchers
Contreras helped instill confidence in right-hander Ethan Roberts before his big-league call-up.
Cubs catcher Willson Contreras stood in the hallway of the visiting clubhouse at Truist Park in Atlanta, his whole body engaged in an earnest conversation with left-hander Justin Steele. The young starter smiled as Contreras told him a guy with his stuff didn’t need to rush.
‘‘One example that I pulled out was Jonny Lester pitching,’’ Contreras told the Sun-Times, referring to the former Cubs lefty. “And he never rushed. He just made sure he executed as many pitches as he could.’’
As a catcher and one of three remaining players from the 2016 World Series team, part of Contreras’ job description is to help the Cubs get the most out of their pitching staff. And they need strong performances from young pitchers to compete this season and build that ‘‘next great Cubs team’’ president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer keeps talking about.
Of course, there’s a whole team of coaches, led by pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, whose main focus is drawing out the best version of each pitcher on the roster. But during the game, when Contreras is behind the plate, he’s the pitcher’s best resource from pitch to pitch.
‘‘He just really knows what to say when, when to push a guy, when to take him to the side,’’ said veteran right-hander Kyle Hendricks, who has witnessed Contreras’ development from rookie to established catcher. ‘‘He’s really good on that vocal aspect. I think he’s learned from a lot of the other veterans that we’ve had in the past, that we’ve had around here. But he’s been amazing for the guys.’’
Passion is a hallmark of Contreras’ play, an attribute that translates over the broadcast feed and can be spotted from the upper deck at Wrigley Field. It has helped to make him a two-time All-Star who is expected to be the best all-around catcher in the next free-agent class if he and the Cubs — or any team they might trade him to before the deadline — can’t agree on an extension.
Contreras’ experience and intensity also fuel his influence with young pitchers. He has the power to fire up or deflate, which is a heavy responsibility.
‘‘Be vocal whenever I need to be vocal,’’ Contreras said of his approach. ‘‘But I want to be a leader for my pitchers, teach them the right way, let them know whenever they’re doing something off. Or whenever they get stubborn, I’ll be honest. But I think the communication between the pitchers and I is really clean.’’
Contreras’ relationship with some of the Cubs’ young pitchers goes back to before their major-league debuts. He has known Steele for years through right-hander Adbert Alzolay. Contreras got to know rookie reliever Ethan Roberts when he was on a rehabilitaton assignment in Triple-A Iowa late last season.
Before he left Iowa, Contreras told Roberts that he would be on the 40-man roster by the offseason and that he would see him in spring training. Roberts brushed off the compliment, but Contreras proved to be right.
In the spring, Contreras doubled down and told Roberts he would make the Opening Day roster. Contreras was right about that, too.
‘‘His opinion weighs a lot on a young guy like me,’’ Roberts said. ‘‘That was very important to me that he said that and very special. . . . He had confidence, and he knew exactly what he was talking about.’’
The Cubs have a handful of young pitchers in prominent roles or waiting in the wings, such as Alzolay, who is on the 60-day injured list with a strained right shoulder.
The Cubs put Roberts (inflammation in right shoulder) on the 10-day IL on Sunday, helping to bring their active roster down to 26 players as April roster expansion ended Monday. But right-hander Keegan Thompson has been a bright spot so far, posting a 0.54 ERA in a multi-inning relief role. And Steele is the youngest member of the Cubs’ rotation in his second major-league season.
As Steele works to reclaim the standard he set for himself in a couple of strong starts to begin the season, he’ll have Contreras behind the plate and in the clubhouse to remind him that his stuff plays in the strike zone.
‘‘We’ve been pretty good friends for a pretty good while now,’’ Steele said. ‘‘He knows exactly how to approach me, how to talk to me and stuff. [It’s] good to have that relationship with a catcher.’’