The title of top catcher in baseball has been essentially uncontested for the past few years now given J.T. Realmuto’s dominance as a premier backstop. Yasmani Grandal has stood as his only challenger of late, but that might finally change. If this spring is any indication, Willson Contreras looks ready to take the crown with the Chicago Cubs in 2021.
Contreras has long had the potential for a big breakout year and this spring, he’s been on a warpath, posting a .323/.417/.774 slash line across 36 plate appearances so far. It’s safe to say he’s been among the team’s best hitters in camp so far alongside Joc Pederson and Nico Hoerner, but if he carries it over into the regular season, he’ll have a real shot of becoming the best catcher in the league.
Cubs catcher Willson Contreras is closing in on J.T. Realmuto
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Offensively, Contreras has never been that far off of Realmuto’s pace. In 2019, he actually out-hit the Phillies star across a full season (though Realmuto played in more games than Contreras), putting up a 127 OPS+ compared to Realmuto’s 109. Baseball Savant’s numbers from 2020 also suggest that the hitters aren’t horribly far apart with Realmuto having the advantage in xSLG and barrel percentage while Contreras has the advantage in hard hit rate.
The gap between Realmuto and Contreras defensively has also been closing quite rapidly. Contreras greatly improved his framing in 2020, jumping from the 49th percentile the year prior all the way to the 86th.
Realmuto, on the other hand, sits in the 93rd, also having greatly improved his ability over the past few years. Moreover, the two have consistently been among the best catchers in average pop time throughout their careers.
What ultimately will secure Contreras’s spot over Realmuto, however, will be that bat. Technically, Realmuto hasn’t had a better year in terms of OPS+ than Contreras’ best year with the Cubs. By widening that gap offensively and showing the prowess he’s flashed throughout his career, Contreras could possibly jump Realmuto as soon as this year.
Contreras has worked so hard to become the best backstop in the game both at and behind the dish and it could really show this year with the Cubs. It’s likely that he’s seen more as their most valuable trade chip, but he has a realistic shot of reaching that peak of greatness while still a North Sider.
All it could take is one year where he puts it together across a full 162 for him to be the most well-rounded catcher in the game.