Willson Contreras: Down But Not Out

Let’s get one thing straight before we get too far into this, spelling Willson with two Ls is ridiculous and Contreras should seriously consider changing it. I think I speak for the entire fantasy writing community when I say it would be greatly appreciated if he made the switch to “Wilson.” Now that we have the important stuff out of the way let’s talk about what happened to Contreras on the field in 2018.

Willson, ugh it’s so infuriating to type that… what were his parents thinking… sorry, sorry, I’ll stop now. Contreras played in a career high 138 games last season, but he put up a career low 10 home runs and his worst triple-slash so far .249/.339/.390. In 21 more games than 2017 he drove in 20 fewer runs (54 versus 74), had one fewer stolen base (4 versus 5) and equaled his runs scored total of 50. The bottom line is that Willson Contreras was a fantasy dud last season, and we need to decide if he can rebound in 2019.

The short answer to that question is yes. At 26 years-old Contreras is entering his physical prime, and has already shown that he can put together a productive full MLB season. It’s just as likely that he will get back to his 2017 form as he will continue his 2018 struggles. But let’s see if we can find some more evidence to sway our belief in one direction or the other.

Pre-All-Star Break Vs. Post-All-Star-Break

On his way to making his first All-Star team Willson put up a respectable .279/.369/.449 slash line with 7 HR and 34 RBI in the first-half. He wasn’t exactly tearing the cover off the ball, but things were trending in the right direction. The final first-half numbers are more impressive when you factor in his slow start to the season with only 1 HR and 7 RBI in a March and April plagued by frigid temperatures and postponements for the Cubs.

Things went off the rails for Contreras in the second-half. His slash line dipped to a grim .200/.291/.294. His isolated power dropped from .170 to .094 as he managed only three long-balls in 55 games after the break.

Overworked

Clearly something was off for the young backstop in the latter months of 2018, but why? For starters the Cubs had a nightmarish schedule as a result of early season rain-outs, forcing them to play a stretch of 40 games in 41 days. I don’t know about you, but my performance would suffer if I had to go into work that often, and my job is a lot easier than Willson’s.

Along with the mental strain of additional travel and preparing for that many games (even if he did not start or play in all of them) in such a short period of time, we can’t forget that Contreras plays the most physically demanding position on the diamond. Contreras spent 1,109 2/3 innings behind the dish, more than any other catcher in 2018 and nearly 300 more innings than he caught in 2017. Perhaps his lack of pop in the second-half was simply a result of fatigue.

Ideally Victor Caratini, or whoever earns the backup catcher position for the Cubs, provides enough offensive production to warrant starting 40-45 games to keep Contreras’ legs fresh. If that happens then it will be a good first step toward Contreras regaining his fantasy value.

Exposed?

The most troubling sign of Contreras’ season was a huge drop in his hard-hit percentage from 35.5% in 2017 to 28.9% in 2018. This explains how with a similar line-drive rate (17.4% in 2017 to 17.2% in 2018), an increased launch angle (5.8 in 2017 to 6.8 in 2018) Contreras could still hit for less power in more at-bats than in 2017. Looking further into the batted ball profile, Baseball Savant puts his Barrel% at 3 percent less, 7.3 versus 10.3, than 2017 and the percentage of balls he got under at 23.2% compared to 14.9% the season before. Simply put, Contreras squared the ball up less and hit it with significantly less authority than last season.

Pitchers attacked Contreras differently in 2018 than they did the previous season. In 2017, 16% of the pitches Contreras saw were sliders and 9.7% were curve-balls. In 2018, those numbers increased to 21.1% and 12.2% respectively. Additionally, in a November piece on Fangraphs Al Melchior showed that pitchers were no longer challenging Contreras with sliders on the inner half of the plate, but rather consistently keeping the ball on the outer third. This is significant because in both 2017 and 2018 Contreras hit for less power on pitches on the outside edge of the plate. Could this be what caused Contreras’ home run to fly ball rate to plummet from 25.9% in 2017 to 9.3% last season?

Fatigue is a fairly easy issue to fix, unfortunately making an adjustment to a troublesome pitch is not. Contreras will have to show that he can do damage with breaking balls on the outer half, or find a way fight them off, to keep pitchers from taking advantage of that weak spot.

Conclusion

Contreras is no longer a lock as a top-tier catcher. There are too many troubling numbers from last season for anyone to confidently draft him with an expectation of duplicating his 2017 numbers. That said, if you believe, as I do, that the Cubs schedule was a huge contributing factor to Contreras’ struggles then this might be a season where you can pick up a special talent later in drafts.

 

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Jake Blodgett

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Like most of you I am addicted to fantasy baseball. Since I spend most of my time talking about it, I figured I would write some of my thoughts down. I am a shameless promoter of Mike Trout and an even more shameless Shohei Ohtani apologist.