A little more than 36 years ago, a pitcher by the name of Fernando Valenzuela, from Mexico, completed his first game with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Up to that point he had pitched 17.2 innings in 10 games, all of them during the 1980 season, giving up 10 hits, no earned runs nor homers, and accruing 16 strikeouts. But it was in 1981 when Valuenzuela would see his first start against Houston in a game that ended being a five-hit shutout for the Mexican, starting what became to be known as “Fernandomania.”
Fast-forward to 2016 and turn your eyes to Chicago. The Cubs had a season for the ages and won the World Series after one of the largest droughts you could imagine. At the catcher position, three players: Miguel Montero, David Ross and Willson Contreras. Montero and Ross ate virtually all of the games from the start of the seasons up to mid-June, the moment Contreras made his first major-league appearance for the Cubs after being acquired by the club in 2009 as an amateur free agent. Since he started his first game on June 20 against the St. Louis Cardinals, he became the go-to catcher for Chicago and established himself as the next big thing at the plate, given the expected retirement of Ross and the unexpected words of wisdom by Montero earlier this season that would end with him out of the clubhouse.
But let’s not get lost in the context of this story, and focus on our guy, Willson Contreras. The Venezuelan had a great stint in 2016, posting a more than respectable .282/.357/.488 slash line with a slightly high BABIP of .339. He walked and struck out above average, but was able to get up to 12 home runs to make up for it, while reaching a 126 wRC+. Definitely not a bad start of a career. The thing is, Contreras is having an even better second season with the Cubs in 2017, and the Willson-mania is starting to get – or should be getting – traction, with the catcher being named the National Player of the Week in early August.
Projection models expected Contreras to keep his pace during this campaign in most of the statistics, and none forecast a huge jump in his numbers from last year to this one. It could even be said that a little, even by a hair, regression was actually expected after what he did in 2016. The problem these projections are facing today is the same as always: Willson is killing them and outpacing the expected numbers they proposed when calculated over spring. Just for starters, and looking at FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projection system, it fixed Contreras at an expected 117 games, played with 490 plate appearances. As of August 10, he has already played 101 games and appeared 374 times at the plate. Yes, he’s been given the reins of Chicago’s catcher slot and his knees and holding out.
To paint a clearer picture of how Willson’s season is going in relation with what was expected from him, here is a simple fancy table.
Projection systems were right in that regression will make a living out of Contreras this season, not that it wasn’t to be expected, though. His AVG and OBP, along with his BABIP, have decreased to more average-ish values, true. But there are numbers that call for a great progression in the catcher’s game. He’s almost already doubled his home-run production from 2016, and will have a chance to even double his DC projection from now to the end of the season. He’s been able to accumulate 0.9 more points in WAR, and his wRC+ has lowered but is still on point, much higher than projections put it at at the start of the campaign, when they saw Willson as an slightly better than average hitter at best.
Moving onto other metrics not included in the table above and to put his improvement in context, what he’s doing this season — he’s doing it with a WPA/LI of 1.35 instead of the 0.6 he had in 2016 (this is, he’s producing more on toughest situations while giving his team more chances of winning games). Moreover, his Clutch value is 0.72 (1.6 points over his past season’s minus-0.88), midway between what we could consider an above average-to-great clutch player.
His batted-ball statistics are also worth looking at. In order to do it, I combined the data from 2016 and this season as of August 10. Here are the top ten players in terms of HR/FB over this period of time.
Contreras is a ground-ball hitter. There is nothing to discuss about that, and that is something he may want to change in order to improve his production on the long run. Of the ten players included in the table above, he has the third-highest GB/FB value at 1.79, the highest GB% at 53.4% and the second-lowest LD% at 16.8%. What is helping him, though, is his high HR/FB ratio, which is making is deep and high batted balls go over the fence over one quarter of the times he hits them. It is also interesting to see how his BABIP is still at a good .325 while having such a high ground-ball percentage and putting up hits to the infield 11.4% of the time.
All in all, Contreras is the third-best Cub by wRC+ this season, only behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, while having considerably fewer plate appearances than those two. Chicago seems to have found a potential gem in their system after eight years of waiting, and the catcher position sure seems covered at Windy City. If only Contreras could hone the little things that may be holding his production back a hair, we would definitely experience the Willson-mania on full swing.