clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Willson Contreras is finally playing like we knew he could

The Chicago catcher is living up to the hype over the past month.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Chicago Cubs Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Willson Contreras just homered. Like only a few minutes ago, as I begin to write this. The lead photo in this story is him rounding third base on said homer, an act which he has certainly gotten used to over the past few weeks.

You see, over the past month, Contreras has been — by far — Chicago’s best position player. Over just the past 30 days — a period which includes the All-Star break, it should be noted, and this less games than a normal month — Contreras has been more 1.3 fWAR, half a win more than reigning National League MVP Kris Bryant.

Over those 23 games and 94 plate appearances, Contreras has been exactly what the Cubs and their fans hoped he would one day become. He’s slashed .313/.387/.651 in that period while walking over 10 percent of the time to go with a 19 percent strikeout rate. He’s been a monster, in short.

It could hardly have come at a better time for the Cubs, who have notoriously disappointed this year. Kris Bryant has been awesome all season, but just about every other Cub position player has either been disappointing or stayed stagnant. I suppose Jason Heyward could qualify as someone who’s overachieved, but he was coming from such a low starting point that it’s difficult to feel great about him. Maybe Ian Happ, too.

Regardless, the point is that the Cubs lineup has not been the all-consuming death machine that we all expected. They’ve been okay, and the pitching staff has been okay, but "okay" was never the expectation. And nor should it have been, considering the dominance this team showed last summer.

The funny thing is, Contreras was part of that problem. Now, he never completely swooned like Kyle Schwarber or Ben Zobrist, but relative to how he performed as a rookie in 2016, Contreras was also a bit disappointing. That’s crazy to think about, but remember that this was a catcher who put up a 126 wRC+ as a 24-year old fresh out of AAA. Guys that do that earn some raised expectations.

Contreras was never truly bad at any point this year. His lowest monthly wRC+ was 83 in April, the same as Addison Russell’s full season mark. That’s a performance you can live with from your backstop. But he was seldom much better than average, and as discussed before, average is not the expectation for him.

The peculiar part about his season has been his performance at and away from Wrigley Field. The splits are, quite frankly, enormous. At home, Contreras slashes .230/.280/.345, a 59 wRC+. On the road, it’s .307/.386/.636, good for a 161 wRC+. That’s a wRC+ difference of approximately one 2017 Miguel Cabrera.

It’s inexplicable why Contreras’s season has been split so drastically like this. It’s not like Wrigley Field is some pitcher’s haven — it’s tenth in the league in runs per game. I can’t say I believe it’s something that will continue in the future, but it’s interesting nonetheless. Regardless, that’s something that’s sure to even itself out over time.

It should be noted that Contrera’s recent hot streak at the plate isn’t the only reason to get excited about him all over again. After ascending as a prospect primarily because of his bat, Contreras has turned out to be a pretty decent defender too. And just in time, considering the departure of Miguel Montero and the possibility that Schwarber was going to play meaningful innings for the Cubs behind the plate this season.

Though he’s been a slight negative as a receiver, Contreras’ blocking and his cannon of an arm have made him a positive defender overall. He’s never going to be an in-his-prime Yadier Molina, but if he’s able to hit anywhere near his current level, a slightly positive glove is just gravy.

In short, when you combine this hot streak with Contreras’s continued performance behind the plate, you have what is basically the ideal catcher. The Willson Contreras of the last month is a monster, and a player even Cubs fans probably didn’t think they’d ever see.

That doesn’t necessarily mean this is sustainable — hot streaks, even those that last for a month, come and go — but it’s still fun to watch Contreras explore his ceiling. Imagine if he did this over a full campaign.