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Deep Dive: Contreras’ framing coaxes the best out of Lester

12 months agoLance Brozdowski

One big reason the Cubs’ starters have a top-4 ERA in the National League this season is due to discipline of their versatile catcher behind the plate.

Willson Contreras has made incredible improvements in framing pitches, allowing his pitchers to flourish and helping turn at-bats in the Cubs’ favor.

This season, Contreras has skyrocketed to 2nd in the league among 58 catchers (minimum 100 innings) with 1.5 framing runs above average, up from -8.9 framing runs in 2019.

His improvement came in part because of his dedication to reworking the path his glove takes to receive a pitch. Instead of starting his glove down below the strike zone, bringing it up and then stabbing back down at the pitch, Contreras now practices one smooth motion.

“Down to up, down to up,” Contreras told Marquee Sports Network in March. “You cannot be on top of the ball, if you’re on top of the baseball… you’re going to push it out of the zone and that’s automatically going to be a ball.”

One particular part of the zone has been a strength of Contreras’: inside to right-handed hitters. Contreras ranks 8th in the league among 64 catchers in turning balls in the “shadow” of the strike zone into strikes (link). It’s no coincidence that this inner part of the plate to right-handed hitters is also where Jon Lester lives.

When Lester is ahead in the count, he routinely finds the inside part of the plate against right-handed hitters with his cutter, a pitch that keeps moving further inside and away from a hitter’s barrel. 

“It’s huge for a pitcher like Jon Lester,” Marquee Sports Network analyst Sean Marshall said. “He’s lost a couple ticks on his fastball, his cutter… [he needs] these borderline calls.”

But Lester also survives all around the plate. With his progressive velocity decline since the 2016 season, he has become one of the league’s premiere finesse pitchers.

He showed that on Monday night in Pittsburgh, his third start against the team this season.

Contreras stole three strikes for Lester that turned specific at-bats around into the southpaw’s favor, ultimately all resulting in outs. The first came in the 2nd inning against switch-hitter Josh Bell. On a 2-0 count, Contreras took a cutter off the plate away from Bell back into the strike zone to move the count to 2-1. Two pitches later, Bell grounded out to Javier Báez.

A similar scenario arose with the next batter, Gregory Polanco. Lester found himself down in the count 3-1 when he threw a four-seam fastball below the strike zone. Contreras worked down to up and took the pitch into the zone. Polanco struck out one pitch later. 

The next inning against Jose Osuna, Lester got behind 2-0 before spotting a fastball just a hair below the zone. Contreras once again worked down to up and took the pitch back over the plate to avoid a 3-0 count with two outs. Osuna flied out to left field after a 7-pitch battle.

Three balls, all out of the strike zone, all turned into strikes.

This isn’t the first time Contreras has saved more than a few pitches for Lester this season. Among the Cubs’ starting pitchers, Contreras owns 7 of the top 10 games this season in number of pitches outside of the strike zone called strikes. Three of those outings have been Jon Lester’s, tied for the most among any of the Cubs’ starters. (Alec Mills’ no-hitter caught by Caratini is first with 6 pitches framed for strikes – link.)

“Contreras worked on [his framing] tremendously this offseason and the results are showing,” Marshall said. “He’s able to have body control, glove control, his position in the right spot and bring these balls back into the strike zone by starting out of the strike zone and working back in.”

As the Cubs consider who will start the potential 3rd game of a 3-game series if they make the postseason, Lester is a clear option for the club to consider. And there may be no better catcher for Lester to have behind the plate than Willson Contreras. 

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