There was plenty of "Willson Contreras: Future MVP?" discussion during spring training.
Any time a player in his age-25 year season hits 21 home runs with a .276/.356/.499 slash line at a premium defensive position (catcher) despite missing about a month with a hamstring injury (as Contreras did in 2017), the baseball world takes notice. The notion that he might one day garner MVP recognition was nothing to be laughed at.
Through the first few months of 2018, Contreras did much of the same. He had a small drop off in power, but he still had his moments and was solid overall. Over a three-game stretch in the beginning of May, he went 10-for-15 with three doubles, two triples, three home runs and 11 RBIs. He was the first Cubs catcher with five triples before the All-Star break since Gabby Hartnett in 1935. He even started the All-Star Game — and became the second player in MLB history (after Terry Steinbach) to homer in his first career All-Star at-bat after having homered in his first career MLB at-bat (back in 2016).
But instead of cruising along at a performance level about 20 percent better than league average, something happened.
Here are Contreras' Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) numbers from the past three seasons (100 is league average, any point above or below is equal to a percentage point above or below league average):
Here’s that breakdown in terms of batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage:
But what caused the downturn in production?
There were some underlying characteristics of his work, particularly a mixture of significantly higher ground-ball rate, lower average exit velocity and bad luck on balls in play which led to the decrease in production.
Also notable is that after the Midsummer Classic, the hits stopped coming on pitches on the outer third. Dividing the strike zone into thirds (this doesn’t include pitches outside the zone), this is what his batting average and slugging percentage looked like:
Granted, it’s not a significant sample, but it’s there.
One non-offensive thing that sticks out is his workload.
*missed 29 games in August and September with hamstring injury
It was the most innings caught by a Cubs receiver since Geovany Soto logged 1,150.1 innings in his Rookie of the Year season in 2008. Three other catchers besides Contreras logged at least 1,000 innings behind the plate in 2018: Jonathan Lucroy, Yasmani Grandal and Yadier Molina. While they combined to fare better prior to the All-Star break, it wasn’t nearly as precipitous a drop as Contreras suffered.
Lucroy, Grandal and Molina combined to slash .255/.322/.416 before the All-Star Game and .239/.317/.405 after it.
That could possibly have a little something to do with it though.
There’s no way to be entirely sure and to what extent each of the things listed above affected Contreras last season. Could it have been something completely different? Could it have been a minor nagging injury? A mental roadblock? Too many constant adjustments throughout the season? The questions remain. A new voice in newly appointed hitting coach Anthony Iapoce might be just what Contreras, who is entering his age-27 season, needs to get back on track and reestablish his spot among the best catchers in the major leagues.
During the first week of my rookie season with the Cubs, my teammate, the late Frank Castillo was running his sprints in the outfield in between starts. We were home at Wrigley and as was customary, a pitcher would do pole to poles, meaning he would run from the foul line to the other foul line while following the bend of the warning track. In this case, Frankie was running during batting practice after the fans were let into the ballpark.
The bleacher bums, known for their relentless in-your-face attitude towards visiting outfielders, were supportive and understanding when it came to the home squad, despite the so-so season we were having to date in 1996. When Frank, who had 1 win and 9 losses up until that point, ran by the left field section of these diehards, I heard a fan clearly tell Frank, “That’s OK Frank, next game, you will be 2-9!” It was loud enough for me to hear from where I was shagging fly balls nearby. I was surprised that this group of rough-and-tumble fans still had optimistic words of support.
Yet this was consistent with everything I had seen from the Cubs fans on my way up from the minor leagues, particularly when I was interacting with the fans during major league spring training before I was called up. Positive, hopeful, worried, waiting for bad luck to dash hopes, loyal and always with kind words, no matter how you were playing.
As a player who was just getting his first taste of major league action, this was comforting. The idea that I could make mistakes, that I had room to fall short and support would still be there, but you also wondered where the line was between complacency and patience, rebuilding and folding, hope and naïveté.
Since I was new enough to just be taking it in, this was clouded by my own fandom. Like most new arrivals, everyone on your team is an All-Star in your mind. You are not sure where you will fit in yet, even with an abundance of self-confidence. Playing with teammates that I had imitated in Wiffle ball or rolled dice with their card on my table during a teenage Strat-O-Matic game, made me recognize that I was surrounded by greatness, in fact, icons. Sandberg, Grace, Dunston, Sosa. These were household names in the baseball mind of my childhood. How could we not have high expectations with these guys?
I was not objective enough to analyze the bullpen or the backup catcher, or how this team hit with runners in scoring position. That was past data, we have a future, and it could all change next week, right?
But there is something different about high expectations when you are on the back end of years of winning. When you are on the heels of a World Championship like the 2016 Cubs produced.
The language the Cubs players used throughout the 2018 campaign and after they were knocked out reflected the highest of expectation. The idea that every year is not just a playoff appearance, a 90-win season, a better-than-last-year achievement. It is a year measured by the singular accomplishment of being a world champion.
When a team has rattled off a few years in a row of going deep into the postseason with a roster full of young players that could have just as easily stopped and taken pictures for simply being happy to be in “The Show,” it says a lot that these Cubs players arrived expecting much more. Age was just a number, underscoring that not only was winning aspirational, but it was a destination that was pre-set, as if they bought a plane ticket and anything other than a trophy was an unauthorized detour.
Along my professional career, I heard a lot of motivational spring training speeches (at least 14 of them). Every organization says they have assembled the best staff on Earth. Everyone says they have acquired the best talent in the Milky Way. Everyone looks around and sees top draft picks, legends of the past and a few guys that may be in the Hall of Fame one day. Yet all 30 teams are saying the same thing and only one can remain standing when all is said and done.
In today’s era of draft-and-develop over a patient-but-direct timeline, it may come down to whether a young player arrives at the right time in the cycle of his organization. Is he there for the upswing? If you play long enough, every team has a least one upswing, even if it lasts only a year. But you must be a core player, otherwise the trade machine could gobble up your timing.
Regardless, it makes a difference when a team has done it before. It makes expectation a word more akin to destiny. The team does not have to accomplish this championship goal by waving a magic wand. They believe it is now by repeating history, or at least as Mark Twain once referenced, “rhyming” with history. And despite baseball’s fascination and respect for its past, a player’s history is often measured in single-digit years.
After they were quickly eliminated from contention, the 2018 Cubs made it loud and clear. The ending was a huge disappointment. 95 wins was not good enough, a Wild Card was not champagne worthy.
Yet I cannot help but think back to Frank Castillo and the fan that up until that time in 1996, never saw such a run that this 2018 unit has seen over the past few years. This fan often exuded a sentiment that being relentlessly positive was important and a 95 win-season and an early playoff exit still generated satisfaction. Certainly when I was a rookie arrival, if we won 95 wins that year, 95 major league wins was more than I could have fathomed as a young baseball fan when I was in Little League.
The Cubs have taken steps to show that satisfaction was not achieved in 2018 and there are consequences. Hitting coach Chili Davis was let go, more changes probably on the horizon. Fans can rest assured that the organization’s leadership is playing for the era of “now,” and they require no pat on the back for winning 95 games, in fact, they are declaring that the basking period of 2016 is officially over.