Chicago Cubs: Willson Contreras and the defensive case against him

(Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images) /

Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras struggled offensively in 2018. But his defensive statistics also took a downturn in his third major league season.

We all know Chicago Cubs fan favorite Willson Contreras had one of his worst seasons at the plate in 2018.

His batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage were all the worst of his major league career. Especially coming off a strong second half in 2017, 2018 was largely a disappointment for the Cubs’ starting catcher.

After Contreras faltered in 2018, the calls to get rid of him started to come from some fans and even one lone rumor. There are plenty of arguments to keep him around still.

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But if you’re looking to make a case to keep him, looking to his defensive statistics probably isn’t the answer. While Contreras was in the conversation as one of the best catchers in the league after 2017, it’s tough to make that argument now given the state of his offensive and defensive performance.

Framing not on par

Plenty has been said about Contreras’ framing abilities. Framing has always been considered one of his weaknesses.

While he has never been a great framer, 2018 was by far his worst season ever in this category, according to framing statistics from Baseball Reference and Baseball Prospectus.

Baseball Reference uses a stat called “catcher strike zone runs above average,” which represents the number of runs a catcher was worth based on framing. In 2018, Contreras was worth -7 strike zone runs above average. By comparison, Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal, who is known to be one of the best framers in the league, was worth 10 strike zone runs above average.

Baseball Prospectus uses a similar stat called framing runs to represent a catcher’s value in terms of framing. By this metric, Contreras was worth -17.8 framing runs in 2018, while Grandal led the league with 15.7 framing runs. Granted, we’re comparing Contreras to the best in the game – but that’s the goal in the end, right?

Fielding not spectacular, either

Contreras’ fielding skills have been much better than his framing abilities. However, he still wasn’t exactly elite in that category in 2018.

The Chicago backstop ranked fifth in the league in defensive runs saved in 2018 with 2.0, according to FanGraphs. Granted, DRS is not as valuable a stat for catchers as it is for other positions.

His fielding percentage was .990 according to FanGraphs, good for seventh in the league.

One area where Contreras has continued to excel is in his ability to catch runners stealing. According to the FanGraphs stat ‘stolen base runs above average’, which represents how a catcher prevents stolen bases, Contreras is the best in the league with 5 rSB.

And in terms of overall value, despite his 2018 struggles, Contreras is still among the best catchers in baseball. He ranks third overall in FanGraphs WAR at 2.6, behind only J.T. Realmuto and Grandal.

Should he stay or should he go?

If you’re looking for an argument to keep Contreras, framing certainly isn’t the place to look. It’s pretty clear 2018 wasn’t his best year defensively. But that doesn’t mean the Cubs should jump ship just yet.

As much as Willson Contreras struggled in 2018, he showed potential in 2017 that he could be good enough offensively and in other defensive statistics to make up for his struggles in framing. So give it another year. If 2019 is as bad as 2018, I’m all for looking at other options. But let’s not be too hasty after just one tough year.

dark. Next. Why should the Cubs go after Jurickson Profar?

Contreras certainly struggled in 2018, and it’s clear there are better catchers out there. But for now, the Cubs should wait it out at least one more year to see if things look up before making a transaction they might regret.