The difference is subtle, both in technique and statistical results. But in a game where every strike has a ripple effect, Willson Contreras’s focus this season on framing pitches sent him skyrocketing up the leaderboard.
“That’s why I put (in) 120 percent during the offseason working on my framing,” Contreras said in August, “because I knew that I had to get better at it.”
Pitch framing was the last hole in Contreras’ defensive skillset last season. He had the arm. He limited passed balls. His game-planning skills and a rapport with pitchers was strong. But Contreras finished last season ranked 45th in Statcast’s catcher framing rankings.
This season, he finished No. 11. It’s no coincidence that last week Rawlings named Contreras a Gold Glove finalist.
The Reds’ Tucker Barnhart and Pirates’ Jacob Stallings are Contreras’ competition for the award. Rawlings is scheduled to reveal the winner Tuesday evening on ESPN.
Contreras also caught nine base runners stealing, tied for second in the National League, and didn’t allow a single passed ball. But taking his biggest weakness – pitch framing – and turning it into a strength was Contreras’ most notable development behind the plate this season.
“We try to stress fighting for every pitch, fighting for every strike,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “I think he's done a really good job of that.”
What exact adjustments did Contreras make?
The change in Contreras’ framing is evident in any number of games. But for continuity’s sake, we’ll delve into two games with Jon Lester on the mound. Our 2019 example is at Seattle on May 1, and our 2020 game is against the White Sox two months ago.
We’ll start with inside pitches on right-handed batters (outside for lefties), the one area where Contreras didn’t change much about his framing mechanics. And rightfully so. That was his strongest side of the plate in 2019, with a strike rate of 69.8 in zone 16 – borderline inside but clearly within the strike zone height-wise.
On this side of the plate, Contreras relies primarily on positioning, setting up so that he catches an inside pitch at the center of his chest. Some catchers will take the extra step of turning their glove so that they can flex their wrist to subtly bring the ball further over the plate, but Contreras has had success on this side of the plate without changing his catching motion.
Here he is this season:
Similar technique, similar zone 16 results: 68.5 percent.
Contreras made adjustments on every other side of the plate: high, low, and outside (for a right-handed hitters). His strike rate improved for all three.
We’ll go into more depth on each, but one general principal carries through. A catcher can make a borderline pitch look more like a strike by keeping as much of his or her glove in the strike zone as possible and maintaining a smooth catching motion.
I’ll show you what I mean with the comparison of these two low pitches.
In this 2019 example, Contreras turns his glove over so that the fingers are pointing to the ground, elongating the mitt outside of the zone. He does this while stabbing down at the ball and then pulling it back up. A jerky motion signals to the umpire that the ball is out of the zone.
This season, however, Contreras has found success starting with his glove low and moving up through the ball – one smooth motion. He also catches low pitches with his thumb pushed under the ball, fingers up, keeping the glove in the zone.
His strike rate on pitches in zone 18 — low but over the plate — jumped from 47.9 last season to 53.0 this year.
Now for the opposite side of the strike zone — high pitches. Same concept, opposite motion.
Here, you can see Contreras last year simply moving the ball.
But in our 2020 example, Contreras catches the top of the ball and extends, pointing his fingers to the ground. The pitch was just too far outside to get the strike call.
Contreras’ strike rate in zone 12 — high and over the plate — improved from 46.2 last season to 49.1 this year.
Finally, we move to the outside edge of the strike zone for right-handed hitters (inside for lefties)
In 2019, Contreras would catch the ball on the outside corner and pull it back toward his chest. Here, it worked:
But this year, he found a more reliable framing method for him. This particular example is a curveball, so you can see him making sure to get under the ball and catching it out in front before it drops out of the zone. But you can also see him flexing his wrist to maneuver the ball back over the plate.
The graphic shows this pitch is clearly outside, but Contreras gets a strike call out of it.
Contreras’ zone 14 – opposite of zone 16 – strike rate rose from 62.6 last season to 66.3 in 2020.
Those subtle adjustments on high, low and outside pitches amounted to an overall strike rate improvement from 48.5 to 51.2. It might not sound like a lot, but that difference was the final piece in establishing Contreras as an elite defensive catcher.