Ever since he debuted with a home run on his first swing, Willson Contreras has looked like the long-term answer at catcher. He posted a wRC+ between 122-126 during his first two full seasons and through the first half of last year before it plummeted to 62 down the stretch. More than some sort of fluke, he simply bonked after failing to keep up with his physical preparation as the season wore on.
His soft contact percentage increased to above average, his exit velocity decreased to below average, and his launch angle dropped precipitously during August and September. Combine those numbers with his usual poor framing, and Contreras went from being The Next Big Thing to a big question mark.
But with the first half drawing to a close, Contreras leads all catchers with a 143 wRC+ and looks to be the starting catcher for the NL in Cleveland next month. So what has changed this season compared to the awful slump he was mired in late last year?
The biggest difference has been an increase in his launch angle and barreling up the ball better. Statcast can actually quantify barrels now, and Contreras is at 12.6% this year after putting up just 7.3% in 2018. Combined with a higher average launch angle, he’s putting more balls in the bleachers and finding the gap more often.
You can see the difference in this approach in the two images below. The first shows Contreras’ launch angles from the second half of last season and the other shows his performance this season. Even without any context, it’s evident that he’s hitting the ball higher in 2019.
Being more vigilant and really looking to drive the ball has vastly improved his results against breaking and offspeed pitches this season. He already has three home runs on changeups or splitters this season compared to zero last season, and as many homers (five) on breaking pitches as he had all of last year.
That is largely due to mechanical tweaks that have allowed him to better recognize and react to pitches. Rather than standing upright and wiggling his bat a ton before the pitcher comes set, which he did last year, Contreras is getting into his hitting position before the pitcher even begins his windup. This helps simplify his swing pre-pitch and allows him to either jump on fastballs or wait back on secondaries.
His front elbow is also higher this season, which could be an effort to avoid leaning over as much on outside pitches. Take a look at these groundouts from late last year where he’s very hunched over on those pitches. This season, he’s stayed straighter through his swing, especially on outside pitches, keeping his back elbow up a bit and allowing the barrel get in the zone sooner and stay there longer.
You can see the results in these heat maps of his batting average from the second half of last season till now. Just look at how much better zone coverage he’s got, especially across the lower portion.
Contreras is having his best season at the plate so far, and maintaining some of these new practices while continuing to get proper rest should allow him to keep it up throughout the remainder of the season.