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Chicago Cubs’ catchers deserve mention in pitching staff success

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Aug 27, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras (40) looks on as manager Joe Maddon (70) removes starting pitcher Jason Hammel (39) from third inning of the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 27, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras (40) looks on as manager Joe Maddon (70) removes starting pitcher Jason Hammel (39) from third inning of the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports /
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The Chicago Cubs pitching staff has been a key part of this year’s run, and the trio of catchers the team has used deserve some of the credit for that success.

As great as the Chicago Cubs‘ starting five and bullpen have been all year, their success means nothing without their catching staff battling alongside them.

Chicago had the best overall pitching staff in the 2016 regular season, leading the league in ERA (3.15) and opponent’s batting average (.212) while allowing the fewest earned runs (511). They held opponents to a .633 OPS, recorded 8.88 K/9 combined, and a defense-independent ERA ratio of 118.13, highest in the MLB.

Three of the five starters are currently in the Cy Young conversation, with Jon Lester standing the best chance of winning with 190 points.

Catching greatness

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Without great catchers to work with, it’s hard to imagine the Cubs staff having this outstanding of a year.

Lester has been open about the amount of respect he has for his personal catcher, David Ross throughout his last season. Together, the duo has pitched in 89 games, holding opponents to a .228/.354/.637 slash line. Their 3.8 K/BB ratio is highest among catchers that have caught Lester in at least 20 games. And their 2.75 ERA is the lowest among catchers of the same category as well.

Both Ross and teammate Miguel Montero are ranked as top-10 pitch-framing catchers in the league for 2016. Combined, they average 10.1 stolen-strikes per start, just over a full half inning of outs. Montero nearly doubled-up Ross on the amount of extra calls given to Cubs pitchers (121, 66 respectively), and ranked third in percentage of balls called strikes at 10.4.

Willson’s growth

Montero and Ross’ defensive value really lightens the load Willson Contreras bares offensively. The Venezuelan-born catcher slashed .282/.488/.845 with 12 home runs and 35 RBI’s in 76 games this year. He struggled laying off low pitches, however, swinging at 28% of pitches he saw outside the zone.

Contreras ranked in the top-50% of pitch-framing catchers in his first year but has plenty of improvements to make.  His 13.1 zBall% was toward the bottom of the league, suggesting that his pitch presentation is an area of weakness.

This became prevalent in the Cubs 1-0 win over San Francisco in Game 1 of the NLDS. Contreras called a couple outside fastballs in a row to Gorkys Hernandez, both of which ended up outside the zone. Contreras stabbed at the ball, rather than received it (which is hard to do when you’re catching 104 MPH, I know).

Next: Lester, Baez lead Cubs to Game 1 victory

Thankfully, the first base umpire rang up Hernandez on a full count for not holding his swing (or did he?). This may have been in the back of Aroldis Chapman’s mind as he threw a get-me-over 89 MPH slider to Buster Posey, who served it off the left field wall for a double in the top half of the ninth.

Watching the Cubs pitching staff dominate as it has this year has been special. But, we can’t forget their batterymate’s fighting through each start by their side.

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