Cubs' Willson Contreras Ready to Become the Gary Sanchez of 2017

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 15, 2017

MESA, AZ - FEBRUARY 27:  Willson Contreras #40 of the Chicago Cubs plays catcher against the Chicago White Sox on February 27, 2017 in Mesa, Arizona.  (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Don't expect to see any catcher do exactly in 2017 what Gary Sanchez did in 2016. That's the kind of lightning that's unlikely to strike twice in two years.

Turn your attention to the north side of Chicago, however, and you should see Willson Contreras doing a solid impression.

Contreras is already a star in his own way. As a former top-100 prospect, he was known in baseball circles even before he debuted in the majors last June. He then did his part to help the Cubs win 103 games and had his moments amid the club's miraculous World Series run.

Even still, it's easy to lose sight of Contreras among his teammates.

Such is life when one shares a clubhouse with an MVP (Kris Bryant), a Cy Young winner (Jake Arrieta) and a variety of stars old (Jon Lester, Ben Zobrist, John Lackey, Wade Davis) and young (Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Javier Baez, Kyle Hendricks).

It'll take something big for Contreras to stand out this season. He should be up to it.

This might seem like stating the obvious in light of the spring Contreras is having. He's played in 10 games and has a 1.248 OPS with three homers.

This is all well and good, but it's actually the 24-year-old's past that contains the most telling hints of a big season to come.

Contreras quietly put up a .357 on-base percentage with a .488 slugging percentage as a rookie in 2016. Among catchers who logged at least 250 plate appearances, he had the best adjusted OPS:

  1. Willson Contreras: 125
  2. Jonathan Lucroy: 123
  3. Wilson Ramos: 123
  4. Yasmani Grandal: 121
  5. Sandy Leon: 120

That a rookie could do this might raise suspicions about a possible regression.

However, this was a logical next step for Contreras. He had torched Double-A with an .891 OPS in 2015 and Triple-A with a 1.035 OPS before his call-up last year. It's not hard to see where he might go next.

For starters, there's power in Contreras' future. Although he didn't do himself any favors by hitting 54.3 percent of his batted balls on the ground last season, he finished as one of the league's top five power-hitting catchers anyway.

That was thanks largely to what happened when he did get the ball airborne. 

Per Baseball Savant, the league hit fly balls and line drives at an average of 92.2 miles per hour last season. Contreras hit his at 93.1 mph and showcased an ability to drive the ball in all directions:

Image courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com.

All this was an uncannily accurate demonstration of the scouting book on Contreras' power.

"The bat could be special, and not just in a way that is special for catchers," FanGraphs' Eric Longenhagen wrote. "Contreras has plus-plus bat speed and an explosive weight transfer that results in plus raw power to all fields."

In his first full season, Contreras should make a run at 20-25 homers even if he doesn't put more balls in the air. If he does, even more power would be in order.

That will depend on how committed he is to cleaning up the big flaw from his rookie season: whiffs.

Contreras struck out in 23.7 percent of his plate appearances last year and was probably lucky that number wasn't higher. His discipline was fine (see his 9.2 BB%), but he struggled to make contact more than most of his catching brethren, doing so on just 70.7 percent of his swings.

The ability to make consistent contact is there, though. Contreras whiffed in only 11.9 percent of his plate appearances at Double-A in 2015 and in 13.3 percent of his plate appearances at Triple-A in 2016.

CHICAGO, IL - JULY 28:  Willson Contreras #40 of the Chicago Cubs bats against the Chicago White Sox at Wrigley Field on July 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Getting back to that could be as simple as not adjusting his swing to get under more balls in 2017.

Instead, Contreras can effectively stage a repeat of the experiment that worked for Bryant in 2016: work with a flat swing and let contact come to him. He would become a more consistent hitter with the same power, which sounds better than a less consistent hitter with more power.

He should also be useful on the other side of the ball. And in more ways than one.

It comes down to the reasons why the Cubs have tabbed Contreras to replace David Ross as Lester's personal catcher. It's a big responsibility that requires two primary talents: framing skills to make the most of Lester's precise command and the arm to police the running game so the lefty doesn't have to.

Contreras showed promise with his framing last year. Per Baseball Prospectus, he compiled 4.3 framing runs. Statcorner's metrics reveal he was particularly solid at getting calls outside the strike zone. That's music to Lester's ears, as he's used to getting those.

Meanwhile, Contreras doesn't have much left to prove with his arm.

He threw out 37 percent of base stealers last season and did it in a Statcast-friendly way. His athleticism makes him quick out of the crouch, and his arm strength produces rockets.

"With [Contreras'] arm, I think we'll all be able to neutralize a lot of things," said Lester, who has notorious problems throwing to bases, to Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune, "not only just myself but our whole staff from top to bottom." 

Again, this is not to suggest Contreras can replicate the breakout season Sanchez had for the New York Yankees last year. He's not going to maintain a 60-homer pace. Even matching the 41 percent caught-stealing rate Sanchez had last year will be a challenge.

Yet there's really not much of a challenge in the way of Contreras becoming one of the league's premier two-way catchers.

He quietly put himself on that track in 2016. To go the rest of the way in 2017, he only needs to be himself.

 

Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.comFanGraphs and Baseball Savant. Spring stats courtesy of MLB.com.

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