Maddon 'thankful' for Contreras

Cubs skipper, Hendricks credit catcher; Russell working his way back

May 9th, 2019

CHICAGO -- After another strong start on Wednesday night, was asked to break down a changeup that he used to strike out Miami's Starlin Castro in the sixth inning. Hendricks was quick to credit Cubs catcher for calling for the pitch during that key situation.

"Willy made that call right away," Hendricks said after the Cubs' 3-2, 11-inning win. "That's the one thing, when you don't have to shake so much, [Castro] probably thought another heater was coming. So a lot of that has to go on Willy, for sure."

Throughout the course of the past month, in which Chicago's pitching staff has been stellar across the board, plenty of the team's pitchers have praised the work of Contreras behind the plate. Entering Thursday, Cubs pitchers had a 2.44 ERA collectively over the team's previous 25 games, dating back to April 8. Overall, Chicago's 3.39 rotation ERA ranked fourth in the Majors and the bullpen (4.15 ERA) has been improving by the week.

Even with all that positive production, the advanced metrics paint a poor picture of Contreras when it comes to pitch framing. Per Fangraphs, Contreras had -5.2 Framing Runs (last among qualified catchers) going into Thursday. Baseball Prospectus was in a similar range, with -4.5 Framing Runs to date for the Cubs' starting catcher. Per Statcast, the Cubs were tied for the second-highest percentage of ball calls (2.4 percent of all pitches) on pitches in the strike zone.

Last season, Contreras ranked 117th among MLB catchers with -17.8 Framing Runs, per Baseball Prospectus.

"There's some things we've talked to Willson about," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said, "About just mechanical issues that can become better, and he knows that. However, he blocks the ball as well as anybody in the Major Leagues. He throws -- [he's in the] top two or three guys in the league. Right now, his offensive production is absurd and it has a chance to continue to be that way.

"Be careful what you wish for. I don't know that any team would not want him to be their catcher."

To Maddon's point, Contreras headed into Thursday's action with a 46 percent (6-for-13) caught-stealing rate, which was well above the MLB average (28 percent). The catcher also ranked fifth among qualified hitters with a 1.075 OPS and fourth in weighted Runs Created Plus (180). Through 32 games played, Contreras has hit .310/.435/.640 with nine home runs and 22 RBIs.

"My take on Willson is continue to talk to him and work with him on the shortcomings," Maddon said. "But really, be thankful for what you've got. This guy is that good. He plays with passion. The pitchers know how much he studies and how much he cares about them, and I appreciate all that. We've all got our zits, man. And when you just put a little more Clearasil on it, eventually it's going to go away, hopefully."

Worth noting

• Maddon liked what he saw defensively on Wednesday from , who started at second base in the big leagues for the first time since 2015. The manager still felt that the infielder -- recalled from Triple-A Iowa before Wednesday's game -- needed to get his swing in order. Maddon said he plans on slowly working Russell (on the bench Thursday) into the starting lineup.

"It'll be an ease-in process," Maddon said. "I built the rest of the lineups for [this weekend against] Milwaukee this morning. I haven't finalized them yet, but you'll see more of an easing process. From what I saw [Wednesday], he still needs a little work in some areas. I didn't think he was totally accomplished at the plate yet."

• Veteran utility man remained out of the lineup, but he was available off the bench for Thursday's game against the Marlins. Maddon sounded optimistic that Descalso (sore left ankle) might be able to return to the lineup during the upcoming series against the Brewers.

"I've got to talk to the trainers," Maddon said. "I mean, he looked, obviously, good at the plate [Wednesday]. This is a tough guy. Really, I'm listening very closely and carefully. I think it's pretty soon that he's going to be able to do this, but I want to make sure."

• Entering Thursday, shortstop Javier Baez (305 1/3 innings), first baseman (302 1/3 innings) and third baseman (277 1/3 innings) led the Cubs in playing time. Maddon said he will need to plan a day off for his stars in the near future, with a rest day for Baez being most important.

• Backup catcher (10-day injured list, left hand) has played in three Minor League rehab games for Class A South Bend, catching two and serving as the designated hitter in one. For now, Caratini will remain with South Bend to continue garnering at-bats and innings.

Quotable

"He's so good at getting the barrel to the ball, regardless of where it's thrown. He really manipulates his hands well. That's the best way I can describe it. To me, that never goes unnoticed when you get a guy that knows what to do with the end of the bat based on how he uses his hands. That's what I see with Yelich. That's why he's line to line, man. He'll hit the ball well down into the left-field corner and then he's going to hit it 500 feet on the pull side." -- Maddon on Milwaukee's Christian Yelich