Cubs

What's going on with Willson Contreras' offense?

What's going on with Willson Contreras' offense?

This was supposed to be the year Willson Contreras made the case as the best catcher on the planet.

Everything was lining up for it. 

He was going into a season as the "bell cow" catcher, with no veteran like Miguel Montero or David Ross to cede playing time to. 

He flashed his potential with an unreal stretch last season before getting hurt and still finished with 21 homers, 74 RBI and a .499 slugging percentage in only 377 at-bats.

He showed the swag, putting himself in the same category as Yadier Molina and Buster Posey during Cubs Convention in January.

He had the support of his manager, Joe Maddon, who has said several times in 2018 that he would take Contreras over any other catcher in baseball.

Yet, that's not how this season has played out.

Contreras has drawn rave reviews from Maddon and Cubs pitchers in how he blocks balls in the dirt, calls games, works the gameplan and — of course — how he can control the running game with that laser of a right arm.

It's just the offense.

He hasn't hit a homer since Aug. 1 and in those 31 games, he's slashing .177/.288/.219, good for a .507 OPS.

His only extra base hits in that five-and-a-half-week span are four doubles (including a hustle double Monday night) and he's driven in just 10 runs.

This is the same guy who collected five extra-base hits and drove in 10 runs in just two games against the White Sox in mid-May.

Is it just that he's tired?

That's entirely possible. Contreras has caught more innings than any catcher in baseball by a wide margin.

Contreras has been behind the plate for 1002.2 innings this season, 47.2 more than the next closest (Jonathan Lucroy — 955 innings) in baseball and 93.2 innings more than the next closest in the National League (Tucker Barnhart — 909)

So rest certainly is playing a factor

"Physically, I watch him run, I watch him throw, I watch him block the ball, I watch his energy," Maddon said. "It seems to be good. The difference there is the offensive side has not been [what you expect]. I promise you this — if he clicks about 3 or 4 balls in a row, he'll look exactly like he did last year in August and September. 

"We just gotta get the ball on the fat part of the bat again. That's primarily it. And that could be the residue of being a little bit tired. It's hard to say with him because he always is energetic. He's strong — he's a strong human, man."

Obviously rest is not the whole story here.

Contreras didn't start heating up and really flashing that game-changing power until the middle of last season after a few months of the grind behind the plate. (It's worth noting that with Montero in the picture for the first half last year, Contreras wasn't catching as much on a consistent basis as he has been this season with Victor Caratini as his main backup all year.)

But the real issue here is Contreras' swing. Rest is surely a factor to some extent, but these are not the charts of a hitter trending in the right direction:

This is his hard contact percentage in 2017 (left) and 2018 (right). You can see the huge drop over the last couple months this season, but also note how his hard contact steadily rose all 2017:

 

And this is Contreras' exit velocity in relation to the MLB average over the last three seasons:

In 2017, Contreras barreled balls up 10.3 percent of the time (29 barrels on 282 batted balls). This year, that number is down to just 6.8 percent of the time (22 barrels on 325 batted balls).

Contreras has acknowledged his lack of power all season, but didn't really have an answer for it, either.

It's probably a combination of needing more rest, pressing at the plate and trying to do too much, swinging at bad pitches and how he's being pitched. The last few weeks, many of Contreras' at-bats are ending with soft groundballs to the left side as opposing pitchers are hammering him in on the hands with pitches.

With Victor Caratini playing well of late, Contreras may find himself on the bench more often. 

Tuesday marked only the third time Caratini started a game where Cole Hamels wasn't pitching since the first week of August.

But with the Cubs in a pennant race, it's been hard for Maddon to turn away from Contreras and to a rookie catcher who was hitting .151 with a .414 OPS in 59 plate appearances from July 20 to Sept. 4. 

Plus, Contreras has been a solid choice in run prevention categories the last few months even when he's not hitting.

"The throws he's made, the game-calling, the adherence to the game-calling has been really good," Maddon said. "The biggest difference to me is just consistent hard contact out of him. Ball in the air, ball in the gap, ball in the stands - we haven't seen that recently.

"So if he is tired, obviously, that's a definite indicator that he may be. But conversationally and watching him, I'm not getting that."

Still, some extra time off for Contreras right now could still be a good thing - to give him rest, let him recharge mentally and find a way to get his confidence back for the stretch run and into October.

Joe Girardi steps down as manager for Olympic qualifying team to pursue MLB openings

Joe Girardi steps down as manager for Olympic qualifying team to pursue MLB openings

Joe Girardi’s name has come up for just about every managerial opening in Major League Baseball and it sounds like he is all in on pursuing that opportunity.

Girardi was set to manage USA Baseball’s Olympic qualifying team. He was named the manager of Team USA in August. His first tournament was going to be the upcoming Premier12 tournament, which is the first chance to qualify for the Olympics. Camp was set to begin on Oct. 21 and the U.S.’s first game is Nov. 2.

Instead, Girardi has stepped down. USA Baseball broke the news with a press release that announced Scott Brosius, a former teammate of Girardi’s on the Yankees, will take over.

The reason is the interesting part. He stepped down “as he pursues open managerial opportunities in Major League Baseball.”

At the very least, it sounds like Girardi is interested in at least one of the openings in MLB. He interviewed with the Cubs last week so this won't quell any speculation that he would come back to the North Side as a manager.

David Ross may still be the odds on favorite to fill the Cubs’ vacancy, but Girardi’s apparent interest in rejoining the ranks of MLB managers is certainly noteworthy. One would think if Girardi wants to get back into managing in MLB, at this indicates, he will get a job. Now the question is where he will land.

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Joe Maddon already has a new job, signs on with Angels

Joe Maddon already has a new job, signs on with Angels

Barring a Cubs-Angels World Series, the Wrigley Field faithful might not have much of an opportunity to welcome Joe Maddon back to The Friendly Confines.

It didn't take long for Maddon to find a job, as he reportedly agreed this week to join the Los Angeles Angels as their next manager. This was a widely speculated move after the Angels let go of manager Brad Ausmus just one year into a three-year contract immediately after the Cubs announced they were parting ways with Maddon. 

According to ESPN's Jesse Rogers, Maddon's deal will likely be for three years at $4-5 million a season:

Maddon came up as a coach in the Angels system, referencing his three decades there often during the course of his five years in Chicago.

Once the Cubs got rid of Maddon, it was obvious he would have plenty of suitors, as just about any team with a managerial vacancy would be interested in the future Hall of Famer. But instead of going to an up-and-coming team like the Padres or a squad on the cusp of the playoffs like the Phillies, Maddon opted to return to his baseball home.

That means he will most likely not face off against the Cubs over the next couple of seasons, as the Cubs hosted the Angels in 2019 and are not slated to play each other again until 2021 (which will take place in L.A.). Barring the aforementioned World Series meeting, Maddon and the Cubs likely won’t cross paths in Chicago for the next few seasons.

It also means Maddon will get to team up with the best player in the game (Mike Trout) and an exciting young two-way star (Shohei Ohtani) while inheriting a roster that otherwise has some major flaws. The Angels have struggled to build up a roster around Trout over his nine seasons, making the playoffs just once in 2014 and getting bounced from the ALDS by the Kansas City Royals that season.

But the Angels do have some intriguing prospects coming up the system — led by outfielder Jo Adell — and Maddon has experience taking a team and elevating them to contender status immediately. He also carries immediate clout that will help draw free agents to L.A., as he did in Chicago with Jon Lester.

Maddon will be reunited with former Cubs fan favorite Tommy La Stella, who was starring for the Angels earlier this season before a leg injury sent him to the shelf for several months.

In many ways, this is an ideal fit for Maddon, who will get to stay in a big market with a team willing to spend and a roster that at least has some incredible talent from Day 1. It would obviously be a difficult task to try to overtake the juggernaut Houston Astros in the AL West, but he accomplished a similar feat in Chicago when he led the Cubs past the Cardinals in Year 1 (and kept the Cards out of the playoffs for the next three years until their return to October baseball this fall).

The Cubs, meanwhile, have not yet announced a new manager, though David Ross still looms as the favorite to take over Maddon's former gig. Theo Epstein's front office interviewed Mark Loretta, Will Venable, Joe Girardi and Ross earlier this month and also planned to talk to Joe Espada and Gabe Kapler this week.

Epstein said the Cubs are "full speed ahead" to hire a new manager, so expect them to move quickly to finalize Maddon's heir.