Willson Contreras has hit .180 with a .250 wOBA, a 52 wRC+, and just four extra-base hits (no home runs) in his last 104 plate appearances, so you’d think a ringing pinch-hit double would be a good sign. And it would have been if Contreras hadn’t prematurely decided it was a homer.
The Cubs were down 2-0 at the time and Addison Russell was on first after a one-out walk, so a dinger would have tied the game. Contreras certainly hit it hard and far enough, he just hit it to the wrong part of the park and with a bit too much loft.
The struggling catcher was so certain the ball had left the yard that he took a few moments to admire the shot, strolling nonchalantly out of the box in order to get a better look at his handiwork. Then he had to start busting it when it became clear that the ball wasn’t going to clear the wall. Not a great look.
Contreras dogging it didn’t matter in terms of the immediate situation, since Russell had to hold up and only made it to third. Even so, the failure to respect 90 had Joe Maddon steamed.
“Horrible,” Maddon told the media after the loss. “I did not like that at all. That will be addressed. The whole team didn’t like it.”
Maddon on Contreras not running out of the box on his 2B: "Horrible. I did not like that at all. That will be addressed. The whole team didn't like it."
— Tony Andracki (@TonyAndracki23) September 16, 2018
Not normally one to call out players publicly, you know Maddon had to be really upset to dress his catcher down like that. And while speaking about it in the wake of a frustrating loss may have added a little salt, the bigger issue is the way Contreras has been playing overall. Or, more pointedly, the way he hasn’t been playing.
Victor Caratini got the start behind the plate Sunday, his fourth overall start and his third in four games behind the plate. Much of that has to do with his stellar performance against right-handed pitchers over the last few weeks, but it’s also a matter of giving the primary catcher more time off. Contreras has caught more innings than any catcher in baseball this season and the fatigue has been evident in his play.
More than just diminished offensive output, uncharacteristic mental errors have been made with alarming frequency. Contreras has often been cited for failure to set up behind the plate properly, but his recent actions back there — dropping pitches right in the mitt, failing to block balls that aren’t excessively wild — speak to a tired mind. That’s exactly what you’d expect a little time off to correct, and the hope is that it will.
One thing Contreras can almost never be accused of, however, is a lack of effort. Even when he’s making an ill-advised back-pick or zipping throws to first on a squib bunt, he’s going balls-to-the-wall. And with his role reduced in Sunday’s game, you’d expect him to channel that tactical nuclear energy into the one at-bat he was going to get. Nope.
This is not at all an indictment of bat flips or home run pimpage, since I’m all for players celebrating big hits and admiring their dingers. But Contreras didn’t hit a home run. And given how much trouble the Cubs have had scoring runs at this critical juncture of the season, the last thing they need is anyone half-assing it out there.
Maddon indicated that he and the rest of the team will let Contreras know what they thought of the play, if they haven’t already, and the fiery backstop will likely show contrition. He won’t make this same mistake again, either. I doubt we’ll see any punitive measures taken, though, since a reduction in playing time is already necessitated as a function of rest and matchups.
And you know what? This could end up having a really positive impact on both Contreras and the Cubs. His failure to hustle out of the box didn’t affect the outcome of Sunday’s game, but the reaction to it could re-center Contreras for the final push.