Willson Contreras was overcome with emotion after learning he was named the starting catcher for the National League All-Star team last summer. After receiving the news, Contreras went to the batting cages at Wrigley Field and shed some tears of joy.The Cubs catcher was in the midst of an impressive
Willson Contreras was overcome with emotion after learning he was named the starting catcher for the National League All-Star team last summer. After receiving the news, Contreras went to the batting cages at Wrigley Field and shed some tears of joy.
The Cubs catcher was in the midst of an impressive 2018 showing -- one that had manager Joe Maddon declaring to reporters that Contreras was the best at his position in the NL and maybe in all of baseball. Then, he and the rest of Chicago's lineup slipped into a brutal two-month slump that put a stain on the season. The catcher feels his task now is to turn the page, following his dissection of what went wrong.
"I really forgot about that, you know?" Contreras said at Cubs Convention. "We are in 2019. I'm looking forward to having a great season. I don't really think about last year. I don't really think about last year, because I think it wasn't a bad year, but it was an experience year. I learned from it. And that's why I'm not thinking anymore about last year."
Contreras, 26, did not delve into the details of his plan of attack for the upcoming campaign -- that will become more evident as Spring Training progresses. The catcher did note, however, that he is eager to get to Mesa, Ariz., to begin defensive work with Mike Borzello (Chicago's associate pitching, catching and strategy coach) and to be reunited with new hitting coach Anthony Iapoce, who previously worked in the Cubs' Minor League system.
Poring over the details of Contreras' second-half slide, it is not hard to identify areas in need of addressing. Over the season's final two months, the catcher had an average launch angle of 0.5 degrees (second lowest in the Majors among hitters with at least 100 results) and a .164 slugging percentage against fastballs. His ground-ball rate climbed to 62.2 percent (47.3 percent in the first four months).
Contreras posted a .169/.263/.232 slash line in his final 45 games, pulling his season line down to .249/.339/.390 with 10 homers and 54 RBIs. The catcher saw a rise in swing and contact rates across the board (both against pitches in and out of the zone), and his other rate statistics were similar to his breakout 2017 showing (.855 OPS and 118 wRC+ in 117 games).
Really, it was just the final two months that skewed Contreras' overall production for the season. Fatigue may have played a role, considering he logged more innings (1,109 2/3) than any catcher in 2018 and the Cubs finished the season with 42 games in a span of 43 days. Maddon also cited the mental side of the game as an obstacle for Contreras as well.
"I just think he got in a bad rut and couldn't get out of it," Maddon said earlier this offseason. "We've got to talk to him soon, early on and get things straightened out with him mentally and how you approach this whole thing. I like that he plays with his hair on fire, but you can't get too emotional. These are things we'll talk about with him."
Told of Maddon's perspective, Contreras did not disagree.
"Like Joe said, sometimes I put too much on myself," he said. "But that's who I am. And if I need to change that to get better, I will. ... I think every player should learn from frustration and bad things. That's what makes you become a better player the next season."
That will include trying to find "more consistency" behind the plate, as Maddon phrased it.
Last season, Cubs pitchers had 11.4 percent of all pitches called balls in what Statcast™ deems the "edges" of the strike zone -- the fourth-highest rate in MLB. While Contreras excels in arm strength (86.2 mph, fifth in MLB per Statcast™) and blocking (1.9 blocking runs, fifth in MLB per Baseball Prospectus), he struggled with presentation. His minus-17.8 framing runs (via Baseball Prospectus) ranked last in baseball.
"He was searching," Maddon said. "He's always searching for different methods. And when you have to search constantly, normally that means something is not quite right. We do have to arrive at a moment he's most comfortable with and most functional. And sometimes you have to sacrifice comfort for function. ... The guy is an incredible talent. Strong, the way he throws, blocks the ball.
"There's so much good right there. So we've got to, again, extract it out of him, start over a little bit this year, try to build into this method that he doesn't become so emotional that he gets in his own way, and permits this talent to take over."
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, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.