Long time readers of this blog know that I keep score at almost every game I attend, but I don’t know how much I’ve written about how often I go through my old scorecards searching for memories. On July 25, after I walked home from Wrigley Field savoring a rare 2022 Cubs one-run victory, I did precisely that. I was looking for scorecards from mid-June, 2016 when Willson Contreras, the man who would become my most improbable favorite player, made his debut at Wrigley Field.
He entered as a defensive replacement in the bottom of the ninth inning on June 17, 2016 as part of a bygone double switch to move the pitcher’s spot as low in the order as possible — just in case the 6-0 lead the juggernaut Cubs had against the Pirates that night didn’t hold that day. He didn’t get a plate appearance on the 17th, but two days later, on Father’s Day, Willson Contreras began his MLB career at the plate in the bottom of the sixth inning. With two outs in the frame he entered the game as a pinch hitter for Kyle Hendricks. He sent the first MLB pitch he saw deep to centerfield. Willson never looked back, and I was smitten [VIDEO].
Baseball is most beautiful in the places where you don’t expect it. Few would have expected the 24-year old kid who took that at bat to become the heart and soul of the Cubs after Theo Epstein worked his rebuild magic. Willson wasn’t part of the Epstein/Hoyer core. He was signed as a 16-year old out of Venezuela under former Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry and received an $850,000 signing bonus. He does not appear on Fangraphs’ 2010 top prospect list, nor on their 2011 Cubs top prospects list. As late as 2015, Willson Contreras barely registers a mention in the “others of note” section of Fangraphs glowing review of the Cubs then-stocked farm system. He was left unprotected in that Rule 5 Draft:
2014 3rd rounder out of Virginia Tech, C/LF Mark Zagunis (Video) is one of many interesting catcher to keep tabs on in the system; he can really hit. is growing into some power and is a solid average runner but has a lot of work to do defensively and likely ends up in the outfield. C Willson Contreras made progress this year with consistency and flashes solid average raw power and plenty of tools to stick behind the plate. Former second basemen Gioskar Amaya, and Danny Lockhart (son of former Brave Keith Lockhart, a current Cubs scout) were both converting to catcher in instructs after some concerns that they could stick long-term at the keystone; both could profile as solid backups with line drive bats and have bought into the change.
But all Willson Contreras has ever done in his MLB career is exceed expectations. Yesterday the Cubs parted ways with a man who deserves to be a Cub for life as much as anyone in the history of the franchise. So, I wanted to share a few words about all of the moments Willson Contreras out-hustled his future value grades, because it isn’t just the NL leading catcher OPS, wRC+ or wOBA the Cubs will miss — it is also those intangibles.
He just wants to play
In 2017 then Cubs MLB writer, Carrie Muskat shared this gem about Willson Contreras from the week he signed with the Cubs. “Weaver” is Paul Weaver, who was the Cubs’ international scouting director in 2009, when Contreras signed with the Cubs.
“[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.
“Talking with Hector and writing the report, I said, ‘Where’s this guy going to play?’ And Hector said, ‘What do you think?’” Weaver said. “I said, ‘I think he might be a candidate to catch.’ He had a lot of intangibles. All of us go out and look for the physical tools, and he had the physical tools, but he also had a tremendous amount of passion. He was a high-energy player and loved baseball. You could see it.”
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.”
An incredible bat and even better bat flips
Contreras has only ever wanted to play and when he came up in 2016 he made a big difference for the Cubs as they chased down their first World Series Championship in 108 years, including this fourth inning home run off Clayton Kershaw in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series:
In 2017, as the Dodgers outdueled the Cubs in the National League Championship Series, Contreras came to play again. The Cubs won just one game in that NLCS, Game 4, and Willson Contreras was in the thick of it again when he hit this absolutely absurd 491-foot home run off the left field video board. It is still the longest postseason home run in the Statcast era [VIDEO].
But, perhaps no individual game captured Willson Contreras’ energy and impact with the Cubs better than the absolute clinic he put on for his bobblehead day in 2018. Two days before his 26th birthday he plated seven runs in the Crosstown Classic on the back of two doubles and two home runs, including a grand slam [VIDEO].
Oh, and in case that wasn’t enough, he also back picked Matt Davidson off second during a failed bunt attempt [VIDEO]. (I’ll have more on Contreras and back picks below).
That performance was the highlight of a season that saw the Cubs catcher start his first of three All-Star Games. There are some players who wilt in the big moment or who take time to acclimatize to new circumstances. Willson Contreras is not one of those players, which is why he did this with the first pitch he ever saw in the Midsummer Classic:
Contreras started three of the last four All-Star games because he is an exceptionally talented offensive catcher. I ran the numbers for all catchers who had at least 1500 plate appearances between 2016 and 2022 and 24 catchers remained, a handful of whom have since retired. Contreras ranked first in wRC+ (a league and park adjusted metric for a player’s ability to create runs), first in wOBA (a fancy on-base percentage that is adjusted for slugging), third in OBP, fourth in SLG, fifth in total HR and ninth in batting average. You can see select stats from table sorted by wRC+ below:
Offensive stats for catchers 2016-22
Bat flips for the ages
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Contreras is his ability to not just create big moments, but to manifest and revel in them. During the 2020 pandemic-shortened season the Cubs finished their season against the White Sox. Anthony Rizzo (another player who should have finished his career with the Cubs) sensed that the Cubs needed a jolt, a burst of energy before the postseason as Maddie Lee reported at NBC Sports Chicago:
Willson Contreras didn’t mean to throw his bat so high.
Before the Cubs’ 10-0 win over the White Sox Friday, Contreras said, Anthony Rizzo had told him to do something exciting if he hit a home run.
And exciting it was.
The Cubs designated hitter likely would have set the record for highest-arching bat flip in MLB history, if that stat was kept in the record books, after a three-run home run in the third inning. In the aftermath, he was hit by a pitch, and the Sox were handed three ejections.
“It wasn’t to disrespect the other group,” Cubs manager David Ross said of the bat flip. “It was because we’ve been struggling offensively, and he brought some swagger, brought some edge. And I loved every second of it.”
That bat flip was electric. In fact, it had a perfect arc over the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers sign that says “Powering Chicago” as the bat rose higher than the ball [VIDEO].
But perhaps the best part of that home run was the reaction from the Cubs dugout, which Marquee Sports Network captured and shared with all of us:
Has Willson's bat landed yet? pic.twitter.com/3ek9dujh6k— Marquee Sports Network (@WatchMarquee) September 26, 2020
In case you had any doubt that Rizzo wanted every ounce of energy for a Cubs team that desperately needed to get going on offense, check out this postgame tweet from Scott Changnon, who captured an iconic moment between Rizzo and Contreras:
This was awesome. I've noticed after every game, Rizzo is always the first player to start the handshake line after wins. Today, he wanted Contreras to be at the front of the line. #Cubs pic.twitter.com/ii1w5hlc1z— Scott Changnon (@ScottyChags) September 26, 2020
Don’t run on Willson Contreras
While Contreras’ bat is elite, he’s often gotten a bum rap as a catcher due to his framing. The volatility of framing metrics year-to-year for an individual catcher has been covered elsewhere. Contreras resembles that volatility, sometimes better than league average, sometimes worse. You can get an idea of the ups and downs from the Statcast chart below. Don’t worry about the individual quadrants too much, just know deeper shades of red indicate a player is better than league average while deeper shades of blue indicate they are worse than league average:
But while framing might not be the strongest part of Willson’s game another part of his defense has never been in question: throwing out runners on the bases. With rules changes on the horizon that will limit pitchers’ ability to control the running game, Contreras’ penchant for throwing guys out on the bases is about to get a lot more important. So let’s take a look at some of his greatest pickoffs, compiled by the Cubs:
At a Cubs Convention players panel in 2018, Jason Heyward described his favorite play of the year: Jon Lester throwing out Tommy Pham at first base. He was sitting next to Willson Contreras who promptly told his side of the story — fair warning, there are some game thread words here, but I think it’s worth it just this one time:
Willson Contreras is a fierce competitor and it was on display in this exchange. It’s worth noting that Contreras became Lester’s personal catcher after David Ross retired at the end of the 2016 season. It’s a notoriously difficult job due to Lester’s woes at throwing to first base, and well, I’ll let Jon Lester tell you what he thought of the job Willson did, courtesy of Jordan Bastian:
Want to know what Jon Lester thinks of Willson Contreras? Well, pull up a chair and set aside some time, because Big Jon had a lot to say about his catcher on Thursday morning... pic.twitter.com/fNd0IGnO6k— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) October 1, 2020
But it’s not all fierceness and competition with Contreras. He wears his heart on his sleeve whether he’s competing, sharing a moment with his brother on the field, or at their first All Star Game together. This personal side of Willson is as impressive to me as the growth he’s shown behind the plate and his prodigious power at the plate:
That brotherly, mentor side of Willson was on display all year as he worked with the Cubs young hitters — especially Christopher Morel. There were so many heartwarming moments of bonding between the Cubs catcher and Morel this season it was hard to settle on one to include in this piece. I could have gone with Willson’s over the top reaction to Morel homering in his first at bat, just like Willson, or maybe the “just breathe” moment before Morel walked off a Cubs victory, but this sequence of events where Willson helped Morel break out of a mini slump with a home run was probably my favorite:
The Cubs will miss that leadership in the clubhouse next year. But it isn’t just his work with young players, Willson has been active in the community and has done some amazing work as a Special Olympics global ambassador. It’s led to some truly heartwarming moments like this on the field that I will miss just as much as the home runs, bat flips and back picks:
It has been an exceptional run for the player who began his career in the shadow of Gary Sánchez before just outworking Sánchez and everyone else. In a league where even All-Stars like Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ had to return to Triple-A to adjust after their first call-up to MLB, Willson Contreras has only logged time in Triple-A to rehab injuries since his debut. That was a goal of his, as he noted in his final days with the Cubs.
Willson Contreras proved definitively, with his bat and his glove that the best sophomore catcher in 2017 wore blue pinstripes rather than black. As he moves on to free agency saddled with a qualifying offer, it seems clear the Cubs front office does not envision a reunion with the catcher who grew up overshadowed in their system before ultimately outworking them all.
Yes, I am well aware of what aging curves say about catchers over 30, but I also know that only a great fool would ever bet against Willson Contreras.