Looks Like Willson Contreras is Getting Better at Handling Cubs Starters

Willson Contreras was ready to hit at the major league level long before he got the call in mid-June, there’s really no arguing that. The catching, on the other hand, was a different story. Not that Contreras doesn’t have athleticism to spare and can’t flash brilliantly on occasion, just that he was far from polished. Still is. If you look closely, though, you’ll see the signs of improvement in his game.

It’s fun to watch the snap throws and the quick feet, fun to write about too, but I’m looking to something a little more mundane and pedestrian than that. I hadn’t really been paying much attention to how Cubs starters had been performing when paired with the rookie until Jake Arrieta racked up seven walks in fewer than 6 innings pitched Thursday. That gaudy line in the battery’s first go-round got me thinking.

[beautifulquote align=”right”]I want to briefly discuss the implications of a Contrerietta duo in both the near and long term.[/beautifulquote]

Before I get into the numbers a little further, I want to briefly discuss the implications of a Contrerietta duo in both the near and long term for the Cubs. Miguel Montero’s flagging offensive performance has long been a sore spot that his defensive prowess used to be able to massage away. As errant throws and the inability to move well become more the rule than the exception, however, the ache cries out louder.

Catching Arrieta means that much more time for Contreras behind the plate, which pushes Montero into a role similar to David Ross’s. Well, except that Miggy really wouldn’t have a single pitcher to whom he’s handcuffed. Contreras would be more of the everyday backstop, which frees up more of the natural outfielders to patrol left. That might not mean much over the next five or six weeks, but it’ll be important come October when the Cubs are going to need to field the best lineups possible.

With Arrieta and Lester set as the first two starters in a playoff series, the general battery structure would dictate that Contreras play in the outfield at least once in the early going. He’s played pretty well out there when called upon and his cannon of an arm is really something to behold, it’s just that there’s more flexibility when he’s behind the plate. Given the diminution of Montero’s skills, there’s little to no advantage in having the veteran back there for a significant portion of time.

As for next season, my initial theory had been that Contreras and Montero would split time behind the plate with the elder ceding more and more playing time as the year went along. Now, however, I’m wondering whether Montero is with the Cubs at all. Catchers don’t generally drink from the fountain of youth in the offseason and with Kyle Schwarber coming back and (perhaps) assuming a part-time role, carrying a third backstop for $14 million seems kind of silly. But I digress.

What I really wanted to look at here is how Contreras has done at catcher so far this season, specifically when it comes to how many walks Cubs starters are issuing when he’s back there. Over the course of the season, starters have averaged 2.69 walks per 9 innings, eighth-best in the majors. In the 22 games Contreras has started at catcher, however, that number jumps to 3.19 BB/9, which would put them at 20th in baseball.

The chart below shows the performance of the starting pitchers in term of BB/9 in each of those 22 games.

Cubs starters when Willson Contreras catches

Okay, lots of fun stuff here. First things first, all that really matters is wins and the Cubs are doing a lot of that. There are also far more intricate metrics regarding framing and blocking and blah, blah, blah. So maybe I’m using a chainsaw instead of a scalpel here and will lose some fidelity as a result. I don’t know, though, I feel pretty good about what I found.

[beautifulquote align=”right”]Pitchers are averaging only 5.9 innings when throwing to Contreras.[/beautifulquote]

If we just looked at the numbers above, we might be inclined to think that Contreras is the one working with blunt instruments. Maybe he’s costing his pitchers a few strikes here and there and hurting their performance as a result. After all, more walks equals more pitches equals shorter outings. To wit, the same Cubs pitchers who are averaging 6.21 innings per start overall are averaging only 5.9 innings when throwing to Contreras. Not a huge difference, but that’s a third of an inning being cut off from every start.

Things are not looking good for our hero, are they?

Ah, but this is all assuming that performance is uniform and that aggregating a small sample size gives us an accurate measure. While that may be true when there’s a ton of data involved, it doesn’t really play here. Not only are we talking about fewer than two dozen games, we’re also focused on a young man who’s still learning his trade. That said, it’s important to look at the strides Contreras is making.

To do that, I split his starts in half. I think you’ll like what you see here.

First 11 starts
Last 11 starts

I don’t think you need me to point out the stark contrasts between the two sets of numbers there. The BB/9 is down by nearly a full walk per game and the average start went from 5.3 to 6.5 innings. If you take out Arrieta’s stinker, which is kind of a freakish aberration anyway, the totals in the second chart would improve to 1.88 BB/9 over an average of 6.6 innings/start, both of which are significantly better than the staff’s season averages.

Now I want to look specifically at the numbers Contreras has coaxed out of John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks, since those two comprise 14 of the 22 starts (7 each) above. As with our results from above, it is clear that the young catcher is learning and growing on the job. The first set of charts you’ll see displays Lackey’s results over all seven games and then just the most recent five. The next set displays the same sample, only with Hendricks.

Lackey’s 7 total starts with Contreras
Lackey’s most recent starts with Contreras
Hendricks’ 7 total starts with Contreras
Hendricks’ last 5 starts with Contreras

In order to provide a little context, Lackey averages 2.44 BB/9 and Hendricks leads the staff with 2.22 walks per 9 innings. Both are worse than that over the entire course of their work with Contreras but are appreciably better over their last five starts. It goes without saying that the smaller we get in terms of sample size, the harder it is to draw accurate conclusions. However, considering that the results for Lackey and Hendricks mirror those of the group as a whole, I feel pretty confident in declaring that Contreras is indeed getting better when it comes to working with his pitchers.

And that’s what these guys are becoming, more so every day. This is Willson Contreras’s staff, his team, and he’s growing into that role quite nicely. Having him catch Arrieta is kind of like your old man handing you the keys to that mid-life crisis he bought a couple years ago, which is lucky for him. When I was a teenager, my dad toggled between a brown-on-brown Ford Aerostar that was so undesirable it was still on our curb after being left unlocked with the keys in it while we were away on vacation and a base-model tan F-150 with a manual transmission. The Aerostar was fun, though, because it had a problem with the fuel pump or something that required you to continually give it gas. So when you pulled up to a stop, you had to shift into neutral and rev the engine, which was an absolute riot. Anyway, where was I?

Oh yeah, Contreras has proven himself adept enough at catching these guys that it’s no longer just about getting his superior bat into the lineup. He’s developing into a really good catcher. Now, there’s still a long way to go before we can lump him in with Yadi Molina and lesser deities like Pudge Rodriguez and Benito Santiago. But I have to believe the Cubs are pleasantly surprise by how quickly this young man is coming along after only two months at the highest level of his sport.

And if he’s this good now, just think of what he could become moving forward. You know, when he doesn’t have to shift into neutral and gun it every once in a while. I like the possibilities.

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