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Anyone who ventures to make a list of National League MVP candidates for 2018 must include names like Bryce Harper, Paul Goldschmidt, Kris Bryant, Joey Votto and Nolan Arenado.
And also, the man who fancies himself as the best catcher in Major League Baseball: Willson Contreras.
Perhaps it’s worth some controversy that the name after that colon is neither Buster Posey, Yadier Molina nor Salvador Perez, but that depends on whom you ask.
It’s not if you ask Contreras. The Chicago Cubs’ 25-year-old backstop made his thoughts on the matter clear during the club’s annual fan convention in January, when he said that he no longer looks to Posey or Molina for inspiration.
“I used to watch a lot of those guys,” he said, according to Steve Greenberg of the Chicago Sun-Times. “But now I’m watching myself, because I know that I’m going to be better than them. That’s my plan.”
The bar’s been set.
@WContreras40 wants to raise it. https://t.co/xIqS66Mj6f
If you ask Molina, however, this is controversial.
As Mike Oz covered at Yahoo Sports, the St. Louis Cardinals veteran responded to Contreras by posting a picture of himself, Posey and Perez to Instagram with a caption in Spanish that translated, in part, to: “Respect the ranks, novice.”
There are a few things to understand here.
Molina has a point. He, Posey and Perez have 30 major league seasons among them, as well as 18 All-Star appearances, 13 Gold Gloves, six Silver Sluggers and six World Series rings. Contreras has played two major league seasons and he has “only” one World Series ring.
But then, there are two points to consider regarding Contreras.
He’s not the type to avoid speaking his mind. His other credits include gleefully dropping F-bombs (NSFW link) in a room full of fans and, most recently, telling reporters (including ESPN.com’s Jesse Rogers) that he’s not always going to abide by MLB’s new mound-visit restriction.
Whether you want to call Contreras’ attitude confident or cocky, it sure is colorful and authentic. Now that the league finally seems to be embracing authenticity in its players, there’s a place for Contreras. Heck, there might as well be a welcome mat.
And while Contreras is a novice relative to Posey, Molina and Perez, he kinda-sorta-definitely has a point about how good he can be.
A delayed arrival in 2016 and injury trouble in 2017 have limited the Venezuela native to just 193 games over two seasons, yet that hasn’t kept him from racking up production. His 5.7 wins above replacement are more than all catchers except Posey (8.7), Gary Sanchez (7.1) and J.T. Realmuto (6.2).
This has much to do with how well Contreras (and those three other catchers) can hit.
His major league debut was preceded by star-making offensive performances at Double-A (.891 OPS) and Triple-A (1.035 OPS), and his major league career has thus far produced a .278/.356/.494 slash line. That’s an .851 OPS and a 120 OPS+. Only Sanchez and Posey have the latter beat since 2016.
But if it’s clear enough how good Contreras is now, it takes a powerful pair of binoculars to see all the way to the top of his upside.
After all, in his toolkit is the power to hit the ball darn near 500 feet:
He also has enough patience to work a 10 percent walk rate in the majors, a knack for making contact and is an excellent all-fields hitter who owns career OPS marks north of .980 to all three fields.
Look no further than the second half of Contreras’ 2017 season for proof of how dangerous he can be when he has all of his talents working. He started the year with a .687 OPS through 57 games. He finished it with a 1.000 OPS over his next 60.
Should Contreras pick up in 2018 where he left off in 2017, he’ll have a fair shot at edging out Sanchez and Posey for the honor of being baseball’s best hitting catcher. That alone would make him worthy of MVP consideration.
What could push him over the line is his defense.
It’s hardly a secret that Contreras has more than enough arm to control the running game. According to Mike Petriello of MLB.com, Statcast tracked Contreras’ average on “max-effort” throws at 87 mph in 2017. That ranked fourth among qualified catchers.
Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune reported Contreras acknowledged in February that he must improve on his judgment with his throwing, lest he suffer another a repeat of last year’s nine throwing errors from behind the plate.
It’s also not lost on him how much his talent for framing pitches regressed from 2016 to 2017. Per Baseball Prospectus’ metrics, he went from being worth 6.0 “Framing Runs” in 2016 to being worth minus-4.4 in 2017.
“Last year, we tried something to help us,” Contreras told Gonzales. “It didn’t, so we’re going back to my old receiving that went way better than last year.”
However, there is a silver lining to Contreras’ framing problem. Per Baseball Savant, his rate of called strikes declined inside the strike zone (Z-Strike%) but increased outside of it (O-Strike%):
- 2016: 85.1 Z-Strike% and 7.4 O-Strike%
- 2017: 83.0 Z-Strike% and 8.3 O-Strike%
Since stealing strikes outside the zone is the hard part, Contreras’ framing mission for 2018 may be as simple as changing nothing and waiting for the numbers to correct themselves.
In any event, this is a day and age where framing mastery doesn’t go unnoticed. It’s been part of MVP arguments for Jonathan Lucroy in 2014 and for Posey, well, pretty much every year. If Contreras gets his framing back in line in 2018, it’ll be part of his MVP argument, too.
Assuming his bat and arm also live up to their potential, Contreras’ MVP candidacy could ultimately leave little to be desired. His next step may simply be collecting the trophy.
The step after that would presumably involve turning to the nearest camera to say, “Told you so.”
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.