The 2019 campaign was one of enigmatic frustration for the Cubs. They won 95 games, an excellent total by nearly any measure, yet they didn’t look the part of a contender. Like a transmission that slips while shifting into high gear, the Cubs just couldn’t get it done down the stretch in games that really mattered. And though it can’t be quantified, something about the team just seemed…off.
Perhaps no player was as indicative of those struggles as Willson Contreras, who bonked in the second half and appeared almost listless as times. His MLB-high innings load behind the plate caught up to him and his offensive production cratered, falling from a 141 wRC+ in July to 74 in August to 27 in September.
Whether that led to a change in his pre-game prep or vice-versa, Contreras told NBC Sports Chicago’s Kelly Crull that last season was different from previous campaigns.
“I used to get to the ballpark, like I did in 2017, and I’d usually get on the elliptical or bike or stretch or lift,” Contreras admitted. “To be honest, I didn’t lift at all [during the 2018 season]. I came out of my routine completely. I didn’t deserve to have a good year last year. That’s what I told myself. I’ve learned from it, I took it as inspiration and now I’m here.”
He went on to say that he had grown too complacent, had figured that the home runs and doubles would just keep coming easy. And he found out the hard way that it doesn’t work like that.
“This game taught me that you have to keep working hard like you did the last year and don’t get too comfortable because you’re gonna fail and fail and fail,” he said. “We learn and we move on.”
Funny thing about hard work, especially when it comes to sports: The results end up making the endeavor more enjoyable. That’s because winning is fun. Being able to compete at a high level is fun. Beating guys with a back-pick or telling Jon Lester to “Throw the f—— ball, mother——” is fun.
Contreras made it very clear that his plan is to get back to that routine and put in some very serious effort in order to get more enjoyment out of the game.
“Just have fun,” he said when asked about his goals for the season. “Just come back to camp in the best shape I can get here. I’m looking forward to having a great season in 2019. When the season was over, I reflect on my season, I think one of the main things that came to my mind was how much fun did I have last year. And it wasn’t enough.
“So this year, I’m gonna be having fun all around the ballpark. Even on and off the field, I have to be myself. So have fun this season.”
And the best part about Contreras having fun is that everyone else will draw from his energy vicariously. Possessed of his own gravitational field, it’s impossible for those in his vicinity not to be carried along for the ride. We’ve seen how that can have some deleterious effects as well, especially since his role as a catcher is so central to the defense and pitching staff.
But a focused and hungry WillCo, one who’s maintaining his routine and busting his butt to get better, will mean a lot of fun for the Cubs this season.