Imagine a world in which Willson Contreras, the most athletic catcher in MLB, complements a rocket arm with quiet pitch framing? Pretty fun, right? That was an area of emphasis for him this past spring as he worked with David Ross in Mesa, but the work continued throughout the season and really took hold late.
“You probably noticed, he tried a lot of different (framing) techniques… I think toward the end he found something that he believes in that he’s going to continue to work on this winter,” Theo Epstein said. “You’re going to see a significantly improved framer and receiver going into next year.”
Indeed, as Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic noted, Contreras had saved roughly the same amount of runs via framing as an average catcher by September of this past season. While being average doesn’t seem like much of an achievement, it was a big improvement from when he was the second-worst framer in the game earlier in the season.
The biggest framing improvements were at the top of the strike zone, where Contreras had previously struggled to receive high fastballs quietly. As a result, Cubs starters had just a 30% chance of getting called strikes on pitches up at the fringe of the zone.
But in the second half, Contreras was snagging those same high fastballs and getting called strikes at greater than a 70% rate. That, folks, is a MASSIVE improvement.
This improvement coincided with pitching coach Tommy Hottovy’s strategy to throw more sinkers and fastballs up in the strike zone. Specifically, Kyle Hendricks and José Quintana worked to dart sinkers and four-seamers up in the zone in the second half. Contreras’s continued ability to get those high fastballs called strikes with greater frequency will have tremendous impact on his pitchers.
If, that is, he’s still in a Cubs uniform in 2020.
Contreras will undoubtedly be discussed in trade rumors throughout this upcoming offseason, especially since Victor Caratini emerged as a hitter and ranked among the top 25% of framing value in MLB. But how does Caratini’s framing compare to the second-half improvements Contreras displayed?
The younger catcher’s framing against high pitches appeared to be worse than Contreras in the second half, but Caratini excels at the bottom and right side of the dish. While Contreras turned bottom and outside border pitches into strikes at a ~50% clip, Caratinis was closer to ~80% in those areas.
Contreras turned himself from one of the worst framers into a roughly league-average one in the second half last season. Even so, it’s fair to ask whether those improvements are enough to convince the front office that he’s more or less off-limits. As talented as he is, there are holes elsewhere on the roster and Caratini has shown himself to be a capable catcher.