A loss as disappointing as the Cubs’ 8-6 defeat Saturday usually has many contributors. The list begins with Yu Darvish and his Tyler Chatwood-esque outing. Then Joe Maddon burned Steve Cishek for two hitters in the 3rd inning and chose to rely on Carl Edwards Jr. late.
And who knew Maddon would press Jose Quintana into a long-relief role as if it were a do-or-die playoff game. It’s almost as if they had not fallback plan for a short start. But it may surprise some that Willson Contreras – though certainly an offensive asset Saturday – hurt the Cubs in more quiet fashio with his loud glove.
Coming into the game, I already had my focus on him given the rocky relationship he created last year with Darvish. This spring, sunny reports gave hope of progress as David Ross worked to calm Contreras’ hyperactive catching style that hurts his pitch framing and other receiving skills.
Watching Contreras’ first two starts this year, I do see small but inconsistent improvement. Still apparent, however, are the excessive movement, poor set-ups outside the strike zone, and the often pointless Tony Pena kicked-out-leg crouches. He also continues his odd practice of regularly pantomiming for his pitchers to calm down even when they look completely calm.
As a veteran, Darvish of course bears ultimate responsibility for his lack of both rhythm and fastball command. But a closer study of his 2.2 innings shows his battery-mate did him no favors. To illustrate, let’s dive deeper into the Rangers’ first three at bats against Yu Darvish.
Contreras at first showed off some of his newfound quiet as Shin-Soo Choo led things off. There was less bouncing around and he presented a solid, timely target. Smaller glove movements to make it easier for the umpire to see and call pitches.
The only flaw against Choo came on the 2-2 strikeout pitch. During Darvish’s delivery, Contreras decided to remove his glove target and drop down into a kicked-out-leg crouch (see photo top of story). Moving the glove target around and crouching low this late has no benefit to the pitcher and can even distract. But Darvish’s curveball was so good, Choo swung through it for a strikeout.
Rougned Odor stepped up next and things got a lot more ragged. Contreras became busier with more late movement setting up. You never want to set up too early for fear of tipping location. But with no one on, the catcher doesn’t need to delay his set-ups or bounce around too much. Yet on the fifth pitch to Odor, even as the ball is within 20 feet of the plate, Contreras is still a man in motion dropping down into his Tony Pena crouch, as seen below.
Darvish’s sixth pitch to Odor was a 2-2 inside fastball that would tail back into the strike zone. Contreras, though, set up not in the strike zone but several inches off the plate in a spot few left-handed hitters offer at.
This loose technique was a regular problem for Contreras last year as well. Fortunately, Darvish ignored the target. As his pitch faded back into the strike zone, you even see Contreras’ target slide back to catch it before it was fouled off.
Darvish then shook off Contreras twice and went back to the same pitch. With this redo, Contreras corrected his previous flawed setup and correctly presented his target right where the pitch should end in the strike zone. Odor took the pitch and with no movement to Contreras’ framing, the umpire correctly called strike three.
Contreras not setting up so extremely inside and off the plate helped the umpire see the pitch and strike zone better. As the below side-by-side shots show, this represents a several-inch difference for the umpire. Use the letters on the back wall behind the umpire as a guide and you can see how the umpire had a far clearer view of the inside strike.
This demonstrates just how much mastery of subtle positioning and body movement is required of a quality receiver. A good catcher must constantly calculate not only what will best help his pitcher hit his spots, but how his own positioning can affect the umpire’s call.
But with two outs in the first – both by strikeout – Darvish seemed on the cusp of a nice groove. Elvis Andrus next stepped up and his plate appearance would end up as the first of three consecutive walks by Darvish. Contreras can’t be blamed for all these, but he certainly contributed to this first one.
For the first pitch to Andrus, Contreras briefly returned to quiet set-ups. Darvish started off with an inside slider that was solidly in the upper inside part of the strike zone. It was not even borderline (see graphic). However, Contreras slightly jerked his head and torso to catch the pitch and even tried some extra selling with a pull of his glove to get it even further into the zone.
No such coaxing was needed. Had Contreras simply caught the ball with no extra movement of his body and glove hand, all fault would have fallen on the umpire for failing to call this obvious strike.
After the pitch, Conteras looked to his dugout, indicating frustration with the umpire’s call. But instead of Darvish starting 0-1, Andrus got the 1-0 advantage and ultimately walked on six pitches. Contreras even broke Darvish’s pace during the plate appearance by calling an unneeded timeout. This came after Darvish shook him off once and was just about to start his delivery.
Breaking your own pitcher’s pace is something of a major no-no. Two outs, no one on, Darvish sharp enough to this point. This year, Darvish is also working to quicken his pace, and yet Contreras chooses to call time out. Just another of many small flaws that added to Darvish’s challenges of finding an early groove.
But let’s go back to that first pitch to Andrus. Contreras’ body movements on this pitch seemed to suggest something surprised him. But Darvish threw exactly what was called. It was on the inside third of the plate, glove-hand side, rather than the middle third as Contreras had set up to receive. But this should not necessitate any extra body movement by the catcher. And with no one on base, Contreras shouldn’t even care if the ball sailed and hit the back stop.
Was surprising late movement the issue? If so, this suggests Contreras lacks a strong understanding of Darvish’s stuff. Darvish did make just eight starts last year covering 40 innings. All were thrown to Contreras, but perhaps changes in pace and preference necessitating more work during spring training.
To be fair to Contreras, Saturday’s loss was blemished in many ways. How critical were Contreras’ own miscues to the madding medley? Hard to say. You much appreciate his bat, but would someone like 2017 Gold Glove winner Martin Maldonado as his backup, who signed with Kansas City for a mere $2.5 million, have made a difference?
Cubs fans were treated to a rerun of some of the team’s greatest mistakes from 2018 during Saturday’s loss. But Contreras is showing marginal overall improvement and the offense delivered six runs, which at least represents a noticeable chord change from last year.