Willson Contreras took the first pitch he saw Sunday and stared down Jose Fernandez. The Miami Marlins ace didn't try to buzz the Cubs rookie and the pitch wasn't close to hitting Contreras. It was just another way of Contreras showing he would not be intimidated by anybody, not even Major League Baseball's leader in strikeouts per nine innings.

Contreras has flashed that kind of spirit throughout his first couple weeks in the big leagues, including his Steph Curry-esque caught-stealing celebration against the St. Louis Cardinals.

But it wasn’t always that way. Mark Johnson uniquely understands how far Contreras has come, the difficulty in harnessing all that and what to expect as a big-league catcher.

"It's been fun to watch him grow as a person and as a player," said Johnson, the current Double-A Tennessee manager who worked with Contreras between 2011 and 2013 in short-season A-ball (Boise) and Class-A Kane County. "He's always been that real emotional player, wearing his emotions on his sleeves. When he was younger, it was kind of hard to contain at times.

"He's always played with so much passion and fire, which is beautiful to have. You'd much rather have a player like that than have a player you'd have to kick in the ass every day.

"For him to be able to tone that down a little bit and control that just shows his maturity and the way he's starting to grow up."

 

When Johnson coached Contreras, he had not yet become the top catching prospect in the game and actually spent all of 2011 playing the infield and outfield (mostly third base).

Contreras made the switch to catcher in 2012 and his career didn't really start to take off until 2015, when he won the Southern League batting title for Tennessee. The Cubs had even left him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft prior to his breakout in his age-23 season last year.

"He's come into his own at the plate," Johnson said. "He really started understanding what he needed to do at the plate last year. He made some good adjustments. It was kind of like the rest of his game.

"He's always been so aggressive and always tried to do too much, whether it was his throwing, his catching, his receiving, his hitting. When he started understanding he didn't have to do as much as he was trying to do, and could simplify things and minimize movements, it started to take off for him.

"Like in [2015], I had him [in the Arizona Fall League], and he was clearly one of the best players out there. His bat and his move to the baseball is really shortened and he's come a long way with his bat and throwing."

So how much of that can be attributed to harnessing his emotions?

"It's just maturing," Johnson said. "It's time. Whether it's staff or the other players taking him aside or talking to him about what to do, what not to do, how to handle yourself in certain situations. It’s the more experiences he has and the more he learns.

"He's a smart kid. He's got this incredible passion to play the game, which is so much fun to watch. And I think it's just a matter of playing and getting that experience."

Johnson was a first-round draft pick (26th overall) of the White Sox in 1994 and spent five years on the South Side before moving to the Cubs system in 2005 (Triple-A Iowa) and then ending his playing career back in the Cubs system in 2009-10. He has talked with Contreras about what to expect in a big market.

During his first two weeks in The Show, Contreras had no issues adjusting to Chicago, hitting .355 with a 1.137 OPS, three homers and nine RBI in 11 games while playing catcher (six games), left field (four games) and first base (two games).

"You could put him anywhere," Johnson said. "He loves to play the game. No matter where you put him, he loves to compete. He loves the game of baseball.

"You could put him at second base or any outfield position, first, third. You could probably put him on the mound and he'd probably be a lights-out pitcher. He's just one of those guys that really competes. And that's what you look for in ballplayers."

 

Contreras has figured out how to keep his love of the game while learning to keep his cool, without censoring himself.

"He looks like the same old Willy," Johnson said. "He has so much fun playing the game. It's just infectious.

"They're going to love him [in Chicago]. Obviously, he's had a tremendous start. He's playing himself into the lineup every day.

"I think anybody that plays the game with that much passion and that much energy and that much life, you got to be likable."