My brother is a Yankees fan (I know, I know) and sometime last fall long about the fiftieth time he tried to convince me that Gary Sanchez should be the Rookie of the Year, and “Oh, by the way, he might even be the second coming of Mickey Mantle” (despite the fact that he only played 53 games) I finally let loose with my real feelings: “Gary Sanchez isn’t even the best rookie catcher this year, what planet do you, and all of the baseball media live on?”
My statement might have been a little harsh, but I’m pretty sure the substance of it will bear out to be true with a bit of time. The best rookie catcher last year was Willson Contreras, and today I’m going to make what some would consider a Bold Prediction, maybe even a Hot Take: at the end of this year Contreras, not Sanchez, will be the young catcher everyone is talking about.
Now, don’t get me wrong — Gary Sanchez had one of the craziest rookie months in baseball history. Last August, according to Baseball Reference he hit .389 with 11 Home Runs and a 1.290 OPS. Everything seemed to be going his way. Then, in September, he even did this, bringing in a run on a long sacrifice fly during an intentional walk. Let’s be fair — this moment is is one of the better arguments against the new intentional walk rule:
So yes, Sanchez was awesome when he first came to the big leagues. But what was undoubtedly an amazing August came crashing back to reality in September and October with nine more home runs and a mere .229 BA. That .833 OPS is still good, but earth shattering, best rookie catcher ever? Nah.
But because he plays in New York, and because his success came in the second half the season, he came in second in Rookie of the Year voting. Trevor Story is twiddling his thumbs in Colorado wondering why 97 games with 27 home runs at the start of the season aren’t worth more than 53 games with 20 home runs at the end of the season, but I digress.
Back to our hometown hero, the other guy who couldn’t crack Rookie of the Year voting, but who I think will be better than Sanchez when all is said and done: Willson Contreras. I’m going to start with some numbers, because I’ve always had a soft spot for the data, but I’m going to end with something a little bit less tangible that I think tells you everything you need to know about Willson.
But before we do that, let’s just take another look at Willson saying hello to 2017 in St. Louis:
Here’s a tale of two players who were both rookies in 2016:
Sanchez v. Contreras
And I get it, Yankees fans — your guy is ahead in all of those things and you believe he’ll do just that forever. And it’s interesting to have a star in pinstripes, so why not this guy?
Defensively, though — Willson has some things to say. Take this, for example, from FanGraphs (which, full disclosure, ranked the Yankees ahead of the Cubs in their 2017 preview - bold mine):
While there has been so much attention on Gary Sanchez in real baseball and fantasy circles this offseason, the NL had its own impressive rookie catcher in Contreras, who slashed .282/.357/.488 with a 126 wRC+ in half a season with the world champs. He caught 37% of base-stealers — league average was 27% — and also showed athleticism by logging 180.2 innings in left field. Let’s see Sanchez do that, folks. Contreras was also rated as slightly above-average framer last season while Sanchez was slightly below average. So it seems Contreras is underappreciated at the moment because of Sanchez and because of the wealth of young positional player talent the Cubs enjoy.
/End cold baseball stats component of this article.
A large part of what makes Willson great is an intangible that the Cubs have that the Yankees do not — Willson has been mentored by David Ross and Miguel Montero, according to ESPN.com:
Yet the emergence of Contreras at catcher best embodies the one-world philosophy on Planet Cubs. "The kid has been great," Maddon says. "But it's not just about him. It's about David Ross and Miguel Montero taking him under their wing and helping him even though it may mean fewer at-bats for them."
Meanwhile, the Yankees let Brian McCann go, and Sanchez will fly on his own.
Let’s also take a second to remember that Willson didn’t come up as a catcher. In fact, in 2014 after posting a .242/.320/.359 in his first season after trying the new position out, the Cubs famously left him exposed during the Rule 5 draft in winter meetings. He fought his way through Double-A, and last year at the start of the season, with Ross, Miggy and Schwarber all on the opening day roster, people wondered if Contreras fit on the 2016 Cubs. But injuries aligned in a way that cleared a path, and when Willson arrived at Wrigley he took his first major league pitch deep:
And finally, there is this, by Carrie Muskat earlier this month. It’s the story of how Willson was signed by the Cubs, and well, you can’t make this stuff up:
At the tryout, Weaver and the Cubs' scouts watched the outfielders, then the infielders, then the catchers. Contreras was everywhere...."[Weaver] called me over to the side and said, 'How old are you?' And I said, 'I'm 16,'" Contreras said. "He said, 'Sooner or later, you're going to play for the Cubs.' I was excited."
Weaver saw enough, and the Cubs signed Contreras that day.
Weaver was to attend tryouts in four places over a five-day period in Venezuela, and the day after signing Contreras, they drove to another park, arriving at 9:30 a.m.
"The first guy sitting in the dugout is Willson Contreras," Weaver said. "Hector and I go up to him and say, 'What are you doing here?' He said, 'I want to work out.'"
Weaver and Ortega tried to explain that Contreras didn't need to do that because he already had a deal with the Cubs.
"He said, 'It doesn't matter. I want to play,'" Weaver said.
Contreras smiled when asked about that.
"That's true," Contreras said. "That's me. I just wanted to play."
For five straight days, Contreras showed up at the Cubs' tryouts. Some of the locations required two- to three-hour drives from his home, but it didn't matter.
"After the third or fourth day, I said, 'Hector, tell Willson he doesn't have to keep coming every day,'" Weaver said. "Hector said, 'Paul, you go tell him, because he wants to be here every day.' That's just the type of kid he is."
This piece isn’t a knock on Gary Sanchez, he’s a fine player, a good catcher, and I’m sure he’ll have a nice year. But he’s not the most exciting sophomore catcher in baseball.
My money is on the kid who is shouting distance of Sanchez’s offensive stats and surpassing him defensively already. My money is on the kid who drove all over Venezuela after he was signed because he just wanted to play.
My money is on Willson Contreras.