Why Willson Contreras feels better than ever defensively
When asked to assess Willson Contreras’ defense in the first half of the 2020 season, manager David Ross didn’t hesitate.
“I give him an A+,” Ross said.
Contreras has always been one of the best offensive backstops in the game and his arm has been a weapon throughout his career. But this year, the Cubs have seen him take major strides in other areas of his defensive game and are reaping the benefits.
He currently ranks 4th out of 39 catchers in FanGraphs’ pitch-framing metric with a 0.6 mark. He finished last year 80th out of 84 catchers in the same category with a -8.9 mark.
After last season, he immediately went to work to overhaul his pitch-framing technique and now works down to up with his glove. He continued the progress in spring training and then throughout the shutdown, working with new Cubs catching coach Craig Driver.
All that hard work has Contreras more confident than ever behind the plate.
“I feel great,” Contreras said Wednesday. “I feel better than before behind the plate, there’s no question about it. There’s no doubt about it that I’ve been way better than the years before. That’s why I put in 120% during the offseason working on my framing because I know that I had to get better at it.
“[In earlier seasons], [it was] bad, but my team was still [in first or second place] and that’s why I didn’t pay attention too much. But this year’s different. This year, I worked to be better at framing and help my team to be in the playoffs once again.”
Contreras also feels like he’s taken some strides forward with blocking balls in the dirt this season. He said the key has been staying calm and relaxed behind the plate and his goal coming into 2020 was to be more consistent as a defender.
Tuesday night in Detroit, Contreras hit a solo homer to lead off the 9th inning. It was his first longball since Aug. 4 and he enters the weekend series in Cincinnati hitting .181 with a .608 OPS this month.
While his offense has not quite reached its typical level, he and the Cubs are ecstatic with what he’s done on defense and how he handles the pitching staff.
“The way he’s gone about his pregame routine, the relationship he’s built with Craig Driver and staying true to what he feels like is making him better,” Ross said. “The results are showing. Him and Craig have a great relationship. He’s invested in the pitching staff, the game-calling aspect.
“He’s really done a nice job of taking his emotions and controlling those in the moment and continue to grow and mature in that area, as well. Especially with the frustrations he’s had at the plate, he’s still really put an emphasis on his pitching staff and understands how important that aspect of his game is as well as offensively. So I couldn’t be happier with the way Willson’s gone about his business and continues to try to make himself better.”
Contreras has emerged as Jon Lester’s personal catcher since Ross retired following the 2016 season. The veteran southpaw has been very complimentary of Contreras this season, appreciating how his catcher will be honest with him at all times.
“Sometimes he just lets me vent,” Lester said. “Sometimes he speaks up and tells me, ‘hey, they’re not as good of pitches as you think.’ … We’re up front with each other and I think I threw a good pitch and he was like, ‘nah, it wasn’t that good.’ Then I trust him and move on.”
After his start against the White Sox last weekend, Lester admitted he’s been struggling with his cutter of late. Contreras knows that’s part of his job to keep an eye on that and said he feels Lester has been flying open too quick with his delivery at times.
Contreras also understands the dynamic is different with each pitcher, so he has learned how to navigate the relationship with different teammates. But in general, the 28-year-old catcher is just trying to keep things positive for his pitchers and support them during good times and bad.
“This year, we all want to do good even though it’s a 60-game sprint,” Contreras said. “That’s why this is difficult, because we care so much that a lot of times, you try to do too much and that’s something I try to communicate to my pitchers — to go out there and do the best they can. But if the result doesn’t come out like we want, we have to keep looking forward.
“We’re still in first place and our goal as a team is to reach the playoffs. I’m just ready to be their pillow. They can rest on me. I’m trying to be the best I can for my pitchers and that’s something I’ve been doing really good this year.”