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Cubs stand by Willson Contreras, even though he comes up short in catching metric

“Be careful what you wish for,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I don’t know that any team would not want him to be their catcher.”

Chicago White Sox v Chicago Cubs
Cubs ace Jon Lester has catcher Willson Contreras’ back against the framing critics.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Jon Lester didn’t even wait for the end of the question. As soon as he heard the word “framing,” he reacted.

“I hate that stat,” the Cubs left-hander said, “because of the way it doesn’t take the umpire into account. I disagree 100 percent with that stat.”

That’s not a knee-jerk, get-off-my-lawn reaction from the pitching staff’s eldest member. He simply wants the differences in strike zones from umpire to umpire taken into account.

“I can see some of these other stats,” said Lester, who, despite an old-school reputation and gruffness, is a forward thinker who embraces meditation and the Cubs’ detailed pitching strategies. “But if you can’t take into account the main factor of what’s calling the balls and strikes in order to get a grade, then I just don’t see how you can grade it.

“I think it’s just another way for them to put an arbitration argument in there, or a free-agency argument, to bring guys down.”

The original question wasn’t even really about the nouveau-chic baseball metric being used to redefine catchers throughout the game. It was about Lester’s strong-armed, big-hitting, athletic catcher, Willson Contreras, and the one analytic wart used to denigrate the converted third baseman who started the last two All-Star Games for the National League.

“Be careful what you wish for,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I don’t know that any team would not want him to be their catcher.”

Whether or not the Cubs get the big second half that was missing a year ago from Contreras, what’s certain is that his pitchers wouldn’t trade him for even a pitch-framing wizard the likes of, say, Tyler Flowers.

“For me, he shouldn’t really need to frame that much,” command-finesse pitcher Kyle Hendricks said almost counterintuitively.

He’s more concerned with his catcher knowing him well enough to call the right sequences and stay in a rhythm during the game.

“And he gives you such a good setup and such a good look with the glove, that’s almost more important for me, honestly,” Hendricks said.

Contreras works so hard at his entire game, including framing, that he sometimes is sensitive to what has become a constant drumbeat on one issue with him.

“I know there’s a lot of people that talk about framing and talk about me,” he said. “But at the end of the day, for me, I just want to win the game. I don’t pay attention to those comments about ‘his framing stats.’

“If we’re calling a good game and the pitchers are consistent like they have been, we’re going to win a lot of games. You can frame all the pitches you want in the game, but what if you lose the game?”

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t work at it. He tried a different technique in spring training suggested by his brother, a fast-rising catching prospect in the Braves’ system, and Cubs catching coach Mike Borzello.

And Borzello said Contreras has been better than ever at it in the past month.

Contreras also works with a staff that throws down in the zone a lot, meaning he’s blocking more pitches. And his big arm keeps him throwing back-picks, and it’s always half-cocked for a throw when catching the yips-challenged Lester. Both of which can add to the framing challenge.

Before grading him too harshly, consider that he has coaxed some of the top performances in the majors since becoming a starter in 2016.

“We must have the best pitching staff of all time if he’s that bad,” said team president Theo Epstein, whose evaluation philosophy balances analytics and intangibles.

Nobody’s saying framing isn’t valuable. But how valuable?

Mike Piazza wasn’t good at it, and he’s in the Hall of Fame. Thurman Munson was an All-Star and World Series champion, and he didn’t have the strongest reputation for it. Without reliable video and analysis, it’s hard to know for sure how good Cubs legend Gabby Hartnett or Yankees legend Yogi Berra really were.

“We all got our zits, man,” Maddon said. “And we just need to put a little more Clearasil on them, and eventually it’s going to go away, hopefully.”