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Contreras, Cubs host homer clinic vs. Halos

@MLBastian
April 12, 2019

CHICAGO -- Willson Contreras arrived at Spring Training with an excess of confidence to go along with a refined swing and approach. The Cubs' catcher explained that it was all about rhythm in the batter's box, and his strong preseason results supported the idea that Contreras indeed identified a fix

CHICAGO -- Willson Contreras arrived at Spring Training with an excess of confidence to go along with a refined swing and approach. The Cubs' catcher explained that it was all about rhythm in the batter's box, and his strong preseason results supported the idea that Contreras indeed identified a fix and put it into action.

Contreras' success has extended from the Cactus League to the regular season and reached an apex on Friday afternoon, when the catcher clubbed a pair of home runs onto Waveland Ave., beyond Wrigley Field's left-field bleachers. On a blustery day, Contreras led a homer-happy performance, backing eight strong innings by Cole Hamels, during the Cubs' 5-1 win against the Angels.

"I'm not saying he can keep it up like this," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "But, what we're seeing right now, he's very capable of doing it the entire season -- something along these lines."

Maddon has declared Contreras the most physically talented catcher in the National League in the past, and the manager did so again in the wake of Friday's performance. Yes, the wind carried Contreras' blasts farther than they may have soared on another day, but the 903 combined feet of home runs were no-doubters under any conditions. The catcher has five shots this season, but his overall offensive game is what has the Cubs excited.

Through a dozen games played, Contreras has turned in a .333/.463/.848 slash line to go along with a 17.1 percent walk rate. The catcher has been using the entire field -- his last homer prior to Friday was an opposite-field line drive on Sunday -- and making consistent hard contact. And the early-season performance comes after Contreras hit .342 with a 1.037 ERA in 16 Spring Training games.

"I never lost the confidence and the trust in myself," Contreras said. "What happened last year stayed behind. We're in the present. We're in 2019, and my season, 2019, started during the offseason. I put my mind in the right place. I put my focus in the right place. When you try to make adjustments, and you make adjustments, good things are going to happen."

What started as an All-Star campaign in 2018 ended with a .169 average and .495 OPS for Contreras during his final 45 games. Over the last two months of the season, the catcher had the second-lowest launch angle in the Majors (0.5 degrees) among hitters with at least 100 results. His 62.2 percent ground-ball rate in that time period was the third highest among batters with at least 60 plate appearances.

The arrival of the offseason in early October gave Contreras ample time to reflect and plot out some adjustments. There were mechanic changes -- hitting coach Anthony Iapoce said the catcher is more "centered" with his head and more balanced with his back leg at the start of his swing -- but also focused on altering his routine. Good day or bad, Contreras planned on going through the same program in the batting cage.

"We saw that starting in Spring Training, and he's continued to do that whether he gets hits in the game or not," Iapoce said. "Sometimes, guys vary. He just keeps staying with it. He's been doing it all winter, too. One of his things is he just wants to be consistent in his practice and just staying the course."

One issue in the past was that Contreras could easily slip out of his routine or have his focus drift. Friday's environment offered a great example of the latter. The catcher said in previous years that if he walked into Wrigley Field and saw the flags rippling out, he would head to the plate thinking about hitting home runs.

"I was trying just to hit something in the air or hit a 1,000-foot homer," Contreras admitted.

On Friday, Contreras just wanted to hit something hard.

"Just put the barrel on the ball and let things happen," he said.

First, Contreras launched a curveball from Los Angeles lefty Tyler Skaggs out to left field for a solo home run that Statcast projected at 460 feet in the first inning. That blast came two batters after Anthony Rizzo slugged a projected 472-foot shot to the back of the right-field bleachers for a two-run homer that got Chicago's lineup rolling. David Bote also went deep for the Cubs, but it was Contreras who stole the show.

In the sixth inning, Contreras ripped another breaking ball -- this time from reliever Noe Ramirez -- high over the left-field wall for a for his fifth homer of the season. Statcast measured the second shot at 443 feet, though calling it "a mile" would have worked for either tape-measure display.

The two homers by Contreras gave him his fifth career multi-homer performance and first since May 11, 2018, against the White Sox. The catcher also became just the 10th batter since Statcast began measuring in 2015 to have two shots of at least 440 feet in the same game.

"A big part of his success is physical mechanics," Maddon said, "and physically right now, what he's doing, for me, replicates two years ago more than it does last year. So, I think it's that, and then confidence is derivative of that, and you're seeing him play like he did a couple years ago.

"I don't anticipate it going away. I really think that, with proper rest, and he's going to get his days off, and keep reminding him of certain things, he's going to play like this all year."

Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.