Making Sense Of The Willson Contreras Conundrum

Just when you think you’ve got these Chicago Cubs pegged, something happens to blow that perception out of the water.

Take last week’s trade deadline, for example. It looked for all the world as if Jed Hoyer would move Willson Contreras ahead of it. But, to just about everyone’s surprise, it came and went and Contreras remained with the organisation. This despite the fact that the Cubs are on track to win just 69.9 games this season, according to PECOTA, and will be playing meaningless baseball between now and the end of September.

While many fans saw this as a win, especially after the emotional turmoil we’ve all been forced to endure these past couple of weeks, others were less positive.

Jim Bowden of The Athletic wrote, “The Cubs were unable to move their top two tradable assets… They had an opportunity to significantly improve their future but let it slip away,” in his trade deadline grades article, while Bleacher Report’s Kerry Miller put the Cubs atop his list of ‘9 MLB Teams That Blew It at the 2022 Trade Deadline’.

This response is simply a reflection of the way baseball works. If you don’t intend to extend a player on an expiring contract, you trade him for prospects; standard procedure. That’s what we’ve come to expect from Hoyer too, who proved he’s about as hard-nosed as it comes last summer by trading away the core of the 2016 World Series winning, famously saying, “don’t let a crisis go to waste,” and, “there’s no reason to go halfway” while Cubs fans the world over mourned the loss of their heroes.

This time around Hoyer criticised the media for trying to second guess him, while also telling Sahadev Sharma of the Athletic: “Willson is a really valuable player, he’s been a great Cub for six years now and we never got to that place where we felt comfortable making a deal to end his tenure here.”

Realistically though, we have to assume that if the right return had been there, Contreras would have been traded. After all, the Cubs’ reluctance to offer him an extension has been well documented and no one close to the team anticipates that changing between now and the end of the year, meaning the most likely outcome is that the team extends him a qualifying offer, if only to avoid losing him for nothing in free agency this offseason.

So why are the Cubs so reluctant to build around Contreras? Well, as Jeff Passan of ESPN observed when writing about the likelihood of a trade in late July: “Multiple teams, sources said, worry about Contreras — who is not known for his game-calling acumen — meshing with a new pitching staff on the fly”.

Is he really that bad behind the plate though? While there isn’t really a way to measure play calling, there are several other key metrics we can use to assess Contreras’ value as a catcher. Pitch framing, for instance, has never exactly been one of Contreras’s greatest strengths. At the time of writing, he ranks 40th out of 59 qualified catchers in called-strike rate (46%), per Baseball Savant. For context, Yan Gomes, who it should be noted has faced fewer pitches, ranks 22nd overall with a called-strike rate of 48%.

Contreras doesn’t match up well in terms of Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average metric either, ranking 56th out of 60 qualified catchers (-2.3) as of Monday, while Gomes was 23rd overall in this category (2.2). As for Catcher Defensive Adjustment, Contreras ranks 85th out of 96 eligible catchers (-3.2), while Gomes, (again for context) sits 23rd (2.3), also per Baseball Prospectus.

Interestingly, the Cubs – who have split the catcher role between Contreras (54 games), Gomes (42) and P.J. Higgins (20) this year – currently rank 18th overall in FanGraphs’ defensive value from the catching position (8.0), higher than the postseason-bound Astros (3.3 – 23rd overall) and Wild Card contenders such as the Giants (3.3 – 22nd), Orioles (0.0 – 27th) and Padres (-2.8 – 29th). Part of the reason for this may be the fact that Contreras has made 37 of his 93 appearances so far this season at DH, leaving Gomes or Higgins to provide the defence while he brings the offence.

This is, of course, where the Cubs get the bulk of their value out of Contreras, who is currently hitting .253/.364/.465 on the season with a .829 OPS, that’s 30th best in all of baseball and third best amongst catchers.

Looking at his offensive output in relation to other catchers, Contreras is fifth overall in hits (87), third overall in doubles (21), second in triples (2), tied for most home runs (16), fifth overall in RBI (43) and third overall in walks (38). Interestingly, his numbers aren’t projected to decline too much over the next three years either and his ZiPS Projection, courtesy of FanGraphs, has him hitting .243/.345/.429 with 17 HR and 54 RBI in 2025.

Given this front office’s tendency to listen to what the data is telling them, it’s not surprising that they don’t want to hand a hefty, long-term deal to an ageing catcher who is, at best, below average on the defensive end. Has what happened last week driven his value down though? If so, the Cubs may consider keeping his bat around next year as the team continues to develop, allowing younger players to benefit from his experience and his work ethic, just as Christopher Morel has this season.

Photo by Quinn Harris / Stringer /Getty Images

Sean is Bat Flips & Nerds’ Chicago Cubs correspondent for the 2022 season. You can follow him on Twitter @SW_Guest

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