The steep drop in Willson Contreras‘ production after being named to his first All-Star Game in 2018 has been discussed at length. His hot start was negated by a 62 wRC+ down the stretch that left him a perfectly league average-hitter by the end of the campaign.
This spring, the backstop admitted that he wasn’t having fun and had stopped doing all the little things that made him successful. That came in part as a result of his overuse behind the dish and we are seeing already how Joe Maddon is being more judicious with his distribution of playing time, a tasked helped by Victor Caratini‘s strong play.
Contreras vowed to never fall into that 2018 rut again and to work his tail off to reach that next step in his development on both sides of the ball. With about three weeks until the break, Contreras is making a strong case to become the first Cubs catcher since the mid-1930’s to start in back-to-back Midsummer Classics.
His case is being helped by drastic improvement against secondary offerings. In 2018, Contreras hit less than .250 on breaking and offspeed pitches, posting a .171 average against the latter group alone. His .294 wOBA on breaking balls fell to .255 on offspeed offerings as pitchers peppered him with soft stuff better than 40% of the time.
As a result of his lackluster performance, the scouting report on Contreras has called for a slight uptick in non-fastballs, 41.1% in ’18 to 41.9% in ’19. Unfortunately for opposing pitchers, Contreras has all but closed that hole in his game this season, flipping the script on what was once a weakness.
After taking a Lucas Giolito changeup out to left field for a grand slam in the 1st inning on Wednesday night, Contreras is now averaging .300 on offspeed pitches. He has racked up a .667 slugging percentage on those offerings and a .618 mark on breaking balls. With those lofty numbers, putting up a combined .633 slugging percentage on non-fastballs that ranks eighth in the majors (minimum 50 results), according to Statcast.
When he pulls those pitches, like he did with the granny, that slugging percentage ticks up to 1.214, fourth best in MLB (minimum 25 results). Pitchers will eventually begin to catch on to this success and will no doubt make adjustments, but it may not help. Contreras is slugging .495 on fastballs this season with seven of his 15 home runs coming on heaters.
Contreras absolutely mashing non-fastballs has him on pace for his best offensive season to date. As of Friday morning, he is slashing .292/.390/.560/.950 with a .268 ISO and 145 wRC+, representing an almost 30% increase in production across a comparable sample size from last year. An 11% walk rate would be a career-best for the catcher, as would his .354 BABIP.
That latter mark is 28 points higher than his career average, suggesting a bit of correction could be on the way. And with the kind of numbers he has posted, especially on non-fastballs, one would expect some natural regression. Nevertheless, a renewed commitment to his craft has Contreras poised to become a perennial All-Star, and that is good news for the Cubs.