Why Willson Contreras’ makeover might hold key to Cubs’ season

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This year, Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras is going to let his play do the talking. Not long ago, the sometimes boisterous backstop was arguably on his way to becoming the best in the game at his position when — very suddenly — his development stopped.

His energy never quit, but his bat and glove betrayed him as he dropped off both on offense and behind the plate. His second-half demise in 2018 mirrored his team’s — but now both are on the comeback trail. Contreras is out to prove that he is every bit the All-Star who was voted a starter just last season.

“I’m going to do my work and let what you see speak for myself,” Contreras said recently at Cubs camp while wearing a T-shirt with the words “DON’T BELIEVE ME JUST WATCH.” “I reflected a lot about last year. I never got really down. I did my best to help, but now I need to do better.”

Contreras’ three-year arc in the big leagues tells a story of regression. For some, it makes little sense. Others see his emotions getting the best of him while he plays a position that calls for poise and maturity.8

“We forget that he was thrust into a situation in 2016 that not any catcher ever had to endure,” Cubs catching coach Mike Borzello said. “Showing up late in the season, being asked to catch what turned out to be a world championship pitching staff … Once that happened, I think the assumption was, ‘He’s here. He’s polished. He’s ready to go.'”

It certainly looked that way. Playing with boundless energy, Contreras ranked fourth in OPS among catchers that season, including a .972 mark against fastballs. By 2018, that number plummeted to .682 off fastballs, which included a .192 batting average. The dip versus off-speed pitches was similar, and Contreras lost much of his power. He hit 11 fewer home runs (10 overall) in 2018 than the season before, in about 100 more at-bats. His offense simply fell apart. But why? Borzello has a theory.

“He put so much focus on his defense, it may have had an effect on his offense,” he said. “You never hear that. It’s always the other way around. In my opinion, it did last year.”

Borzello could be onto something for one simple reason. A catcher used to be judged on his arm and, secondarily, perhaps on his blocking ability. But in today’s game, pitch framing seems to be cited more often than caught stealing percentages when assessing a catcher. Contreras shouldn’t be concerned with the latter stat, considering he has a cannon for an arm, but stealing a strike or two for his pitchers hasn’t been his forte. The Cubs know he’s well aware of it and think it has been on his mind too much.

“He knows that’s a category that’s analyzed a lot,” Borzello said. “Maybe the most. We’re constantly trying things to get better.”