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North Side framing

The Cubs have been saying that Willson Contreras is working on his framing, and the first batch of results are very promising indeed.

Chicago Cubs v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The North Side of Chicago holds one very big secret. It sat on that secret, waiting and hoping that as time went by there would be verifiable evidence that the secret was in fact a reality. Whispers of change swirled in the winds, change that was once not thought possible. Past evidence made it easy to dismiss those whispers, yet here and there those in positions of power dropped hints that those whispers would soon be shown to be the truth. Those whispers were drowned out by a roar that said, “Willson Contreras is a terrible framing catcher!”

Despite that loud roar, the Chicago Cubs remained steadfast in their message: their star catcher had managed to turn his one glaring negative around. People were quick to dismiss their claims, but Jed Hoyer and everyone down the line held onto their secret waiting for the day when the rest of the world would have to admit they were right. Two weeks into the 2020 Major League Baseball season and evidence has started to surface that we should start believing what the Cubs are saying about their young catcher.

Unlike with hitting, we don’t have to worry about small sample size as much with catcher framing. Contreras has only 39 plate appearances on the season, but he’s already had 507 pitches thrown his way behind the plate. That gives legitimacy to the results that have been released. Before we get to the now, just how bad has Contreras been in the past?

It’s easy to look at the natural athleticism possessed by Contreras and think, “Man, this guy must be a great defensive catcher.” He throws rockets, is always near the top of the league leaderboard in Pop Time, and displays a keen ability to block pitches in the dirt. In every way but one, Contreras is the prototype of what a team should want in a catcher. Unfortunately for Contreras, that one area where he is deficient happens to be very, very important. Framing is far more important than any other defensive attributes a catcher may have, and when it comes to framing, Contreras has been utterly awful his entire career.

Baseball Prospectus has by far the best catcher framing metrics around, and boy oh boy, have they never been kind to the Cubs' backstop. Called Strikes Above Average Runs, or CSAA Runs, is the best tool to use to measure a catcher’s prowess, or lack thereof, as a framer. Starting with his rookie season of 2016 Contreras has posted CSAA Runs totals of 5.0, -2.8, -17.8, and -9.4. His 2018 total of -17.8 was dead last among every qualified catcher, while his 2019 number was only 5 spots removed from dead last. Needless to say, the Cubs had a problem with not getting extra strike calls when Contreras was behind the plate.

The 2020 season may be in its infancy, but currently, Contreras ranks 15th in CSAA Runs with 0.1. He’s also at 0 by Baseball Savant’s metrics, and FanGraphs has him at 0.4 DEF for the year so far. Those numbers aren’t just encouraging, they are downright mesmerizing in their level of improvement. They don’t point to a great framer either, but rather a competent framer. While it would be truly amazing if Contreras kept improving and became an above-average framer, simply being competent with his already existing offensive and defensive skills would legitimize the belief that he is the best catcher in baseball right now.

Obviously, it’s still too early to say that Contreras has completely turned around his framing ability. At the same time, the Cubs have been saying for a while that he has been working hard on getting better and that sooner or later those improvements would manifest themselves on the field. All the while pundits and fans called for the Cubs to trade Contreras while they could. Instead the Cubs stuck with their dynamic star. If the early returns stay true for the remainder of the season the Cubs find themselves without any catching problem other than when to give the best backstop in the game a day off.