2016: 76 games – 283 PA – 9.2 BB% – 23.7 K% – .282/.357/.488 – .368 wOBA – 2.2 WAR
Yay, it’s time to really get in up to the wrist on the 2017 season, which we all need as this world continues to spin off its axis and we desperately reach or something, anything to cling to. So as we sift through the roster, let’s start behind the plate and spiral our way out and then spiral back to the mound, always riding the spiral. Today, we’ll start with the Cubs’ resident unhinged nutcase, Willson Contreras.
Contreras started coming up on the radar in 2015, when he simply tore Double-A apart to the tune of a 156 wRC+. He had been something of a middling-to-nothing prospect until then, and at the age of 23 back then he might have been looking at sliding out of the organization altogether. He even passed through the Rule 5 draft unscathed.
Then he came up halfway through the season last year, sent the first pitch he saw in the majors to a place where all it could do was be alone with its thoughts and regrets, screamed a lot, and we all fell in love instantly. Contreras went on to be a big bat both behind the plate and in left field. He added a game-tying RBI hit in Game 4 against the Giants, and then turning a Clayton Kershaw pitch into mist in Game 6 against the Dodgers. Oh, and an RBI double in Game 7. When it comes time to put a team to the sword, go figure that the scream-y guy wants to run to the front of the line.
What to expect from Willson this year? We don’t even have a half-season to look at when it comes to Contreras. He came out simply turning everything into a piñata in June when he came up, struggled in July, and then finished the season strong. Some of Willson’s problems in July were that he couldn’t make contact on off-speed pitches, whiffing at over a third of them. As all young hitters tend to do, it sprung partly from trying to pull everything to the Green Mill over the left field wall. Contreras’s pull-percentage was 54% for that month, never creeping anywhere near that in any other month as Willson remembered he had big power up the middle and the other way as well.
What should excite Cubs fans is that much like everyone else they brought up, we should see his K% sink as he gets more experience. We’ve seen it with Baez, Russell, and Bryant. Contreras never struck out over 20% of the time in the minors, and there’s every reason to expect he can bring down the 23.7 mark he put up in half a season last year. That’s more balls in play and more walks, and we know what he can do when he makes contact.
What Willson can expect is a lot of curves and sliders, especially from righties. His whiffs/swing mark on those pitchers last year were both over 45%, though he crushed sliders to the tune of a .203 ISO, so if you make a mistake with one it’s going to cost you. Willson also showed a hole in his swing with anything above the waist. See for yourself:
So Willson can expect a bunch of high fastballs in his eyes and then sliders trying to put him away. He’s going to have to figure out how to do just enough damage at the top of the zone to avoid that elevator in his at-bats.
Out in the field, Contreras will take the reins as the main dude, which also means trying to howitzer all the runners that Lester can’t do anything about. We know Contreras has a doomsday gun behind the plate, and will live with the occasional throw that wakes up an outfielder for all the runners he’ll cut down, causing him to yell more which we all love. As far as receiving, Contreras’s framing skills were a little better than expected, putting up a 3.3 RAA over a half-season (for comparison’s sake, Ross was 8.7 with just about the same sample size, so you can see how far Contreras has to go to be among the best). Over a full season, Contreras would be solidly second-tier in the category, whatever you think of it.
You always hesitate to go all-in on any player who hasn’t even been through one full season in the majors. So there are going to be dips with Willson. But he should provide enough defense when he isn’t hitting, and when he is hitting he’s going to be video-game-on-speed fun.
And there will be yelling. So much yelling.