When the Chicago Cubs (82-47) signed Jon Lester and Miguel Montero before the 2015 season, they made a strong statement on the focus of their pitching staff.
Instead of following the power trend like the New York Mets (66-64), the Cubs built around framing and sequencing.
Cubs starters lead the league total bases allowed, WHIP, and FIP-ERA percentage. They also have two of their three catchers ranked in the top-10 for pitch framing, with Willson Contreras being the lone exception.
That being said, the continuation of Chicago’s pitching success hinges on what kind of relationship Contreras forges with the starters.
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According to reports, Contreras already earned the trust of John Lackey, Jason Hammel, and Kyle Hendricks. What remains to be seen is how Contreras handles the aces of the rotation– Lester and Jake Arrieta.
With Contreras behind the plate, Cubs starters have a 3.80 ERA. That’s still good enough to be ranked within the top third of the league.
“He’s shown that he belongs here. He’s definitely shown that he can do this.” Manager Joe Maddon said of Contreras catching Lester back in July.
Even with Maddon’s beaming endorsement of Contreras’ skill and desire to be a big-leaguer, the success has yet to come. In a limited sample size (three starts), Lester and Arrieta are a combined 1-1 with a 10.8 ERA, recording nine strikeouts and giving up six home runs.
This may be disconcerting to some skeptics, but bear in mind that the next catcher the Cubs have in development is in Double-A Tennessee right now, Victor Caratini. Scouts see him as “raw in the finer points of framing”, something the Cubs have focused on building around.
The saving grace for Contreras’ future as the Cubs everyday catcher is his bat. He has the best slash line among Cubs catchers (.273/.454/.807), and leads them in extra-base hits and runs scored.
“He’s always played with so much passion and fire, which is beautiful to have. You’d much rather have a player like that than have a player you’d have to kick in the ass every day” Tennessee Smokies manager Mark Johnson told CSNChicago.
Even though Contreras’ defense is a long way away from being held in the same conversation as Montero’s or David Ross’, his willingness to learn the position is what will make the difference in success or failure with the Cubs starters.