The one thing we on the outside can’t really know, or ever measure, is what goes on in the dugout and in the clubhouse. You’ll remember before David “Did Someone Say Perfect Game?!” Ross was Yahweh for Cubs fans, in 2015 he might as well have come to the plate with a pool noodle. And it was annoying, and more than a few of us wondered why we were having to sit through it (even though that was the time we didn’t want to yet admit that Schwarber was not a catcher and never would be). But they kept telling us how important he was as a leader in the clubhouse, and while sometimes that sounds like a neat excuse, we have to believe them. Obviously when you’re spending every day together for basically eight months, shit carries out to the field.
Similarly, on the field leadership is a thing we don’t know everything about. A player who can rally his teammates, get in someone’s face if he needs to, and basically when he gets going everyone else does too.
Some of this is fake, and we have to be careful of that. It’s something you might see more in other sports, where the scream-y, try-hard guy catches all the cameras but is actually loathed by his more talented teammates. I always think of Jorge Posada when I think of this, and I really no reason to. I just do.
For the past five seasons, we just put that label on Anthony Rizzo. Hell, he was brought here partially to be that, because of his personality and what he’d already been through as a person. And he’s been that. He’s in the middle of the lineup, he’s the second-best player on the team after being the best, he’s been here the longest, and everything seems to revolve around him. If the Cubs had a captain, and if a captain in baseball actually meant anything, you’d have to assume Rizzo would get the honor without a dissenting voice.
And yet this season, you get the feeling that Willson Contreras is creeping up on him. Willy has an unfair advantage in that he plays catcher, and hence has some control or say in the whole game. And a lot of teams kind of pivot around the catcher. Jason Varitek certainly was the heart of those 00’s Red Sox teams. Maybe Posada was for the Yanks, though I tend to doubt it. Gary Carter was front and center on the Mets way back when. For better or worse the Cardinals have followed Yadier Molina for a decade now. Buster Posey in San Francisco as well, though he’s also doubled as their best player basically since he arrived in San Francisco.
And it’s easy to notice Contreras and maybe mistake things for being “the heartbeat.” He’s scream-y. He’s intense. He might actually be a little crazy. But he’s not just a scream-y, try-hard guy. He can back it up. And of late he’s been one of the Cubs best players, and it’s no coincidence the Cubs’ record has picked up since he went nuclear at the plate.
Maybe there are still problems with his handling of the staff, though we haven’t heard any of that. His framing skills haven’t been what they were last year, though there’s time for that to bounce back. We certainly haven’t heard anything about the pitchers bitching about him yet.
Unlike Rizzo, there’s more of a swagger to Contreras. While Rizzo, at least when things are going well, is big and fun and happy and goofy and the Cubs were certainly fun and happy and goofy last year, Contreras is more “here’s how I’m gonna kick your ass and make you like it.” It’s taking joy in beating his opponent, and being sure that he’s going to. He takes baserunners personally, it seems. And when the Cubs get a swagger, more of an attitude, it seems to spring from Contreras more. Rizzo is the laugh, Contreras is the team beating their chest. There’s a snarl to Willy, and maybe that’s what this Cubs team needs more of this season then just enjoying the ride.
Contreras’s act might wear thin when he isn’t hitting. Though I didn’t mind it earlier in the year. But when he is hitting, and cutting down runners all over the place, and pounding his chest and screaming, it feels like the whole team picks up. I know I do. And I doubt Rizzo would have any problem sharing that role.