As we’re just about to head into full spring training, with everyone joining the pitchers and catchers and getting ready to send out weird instagrams, one of the questions we don’t have for the Cubs is behind the plate. Sure, there’s some intrigue on whether Kyle Schwarber will catch at all, but what are we talking about really with that? 25 games? That’s if he were to catch once a week, and even if there are injuries you can’t really see the Cubs tossing him back there for even 50 games.
The rest? We know The Main Ingredient is at first for however long he can stand up (though a few more off days wouldn’t kill him). Russell will take most of the time at short but Baez will probably see a spot start or there too, and the rest could really rotate though Bryant will always be in the lineup as long as he can stand up.
A couple days ago it was confirmed that Willson Contreras will be Lester’s catcher. How was this even a debate?
Over at BP Wrigleyville, Randy Holt goes “all in” on Willson Contreras. But I’m not sure he really puts into context how good Contreras was last year. Much like Schwarber, we just don’t have that much to look at as Willson came up in the middle of June and played just over half a season.
So we have to do some extrapolation. And that’s always risky, because we can’t know how the league would have adjusted to a player given a full season to do so, though we’re going to find out this year. In 76 games last year, Contreras was worth 2.2 fWAR. So if he’d kept up that pace for a whole season, say 125 games that would have been a 3.6 WAR season. It’s not exactly scientific, but that’s the pace he was one. Unlike Schwarber though, Contreras would have continued to provide value defensively, even if pitchers had found a crack in his incredibly intense and possibly unhinged armor. So it’s not perhaps as pie-in-the-sky (what’s with these airborne pies anyway? Wouldn’t that be somewhat scary?) to say he could have gotten there and could get there this season.
Looking back over the past 30 years, there’s only three rookie catchers to have a better than 3.6 WAR season. Piazza in ’93 (7.4), Posey in 2010 (4.0), and here’s one you’ll remember, Soto in ’08 (3.7). It’s the last name that will give fans pause, because unlike the first two he didn’t go on to have a stellar and hall of fame career (and Posey is on that arc on jewelry alone).
Now it would be ludicrous to suggest that Contreras is going to go on to throw up 7-WAR seasons that Piazza or Posey did, or the consistent 5.5+ ones that Posey has in recent years. But it also might be ludicrous to suggest he absolutely can’t either. He’s going to have to make a hell of a lot more contact than he did, as he was well below average in that and above average in his whiffs. But he does walk at an above-average rate, and his strikeout rate in the minors was low.
We can guess he’s going to see a ton of breaking pitches. Contreras whiffed on nearly half the swings he took at curves and sliders, and his batting average on curves was high in large part due to a .471 BABIP, which is ridiculously lucky as he nearly hit 60% of those on the ground. They just found holes.
Take it all with a grain of salt, but the Cubs might have a true start behind the plate. Or it might just be Soto all over again, but with an actual arm.