Cubs: Willson Contreras can be the driving force this offense has lacked
By Martin Fenn
The Chicago Cubs appeared to be headed toward yet another loss highlighted by offensive struggles on Tuesday night in Milwaukee.
Brewers starter Brandon Woodruff was not quite as sharp as he had been when he tossed six no-hit innings against the Cubs last week in Chicago. But he still limited the North Siders to just three hits in six innings of work, striking out six and keeping Milwaukee in control.
It was shaping up to be the latest in a slew of inept performances from the Cubs offense. But Wilson Contreras provided a much-needed spark.
Chicago’s backstop gave the Cubs a 3-2 lead in the top of the eighth with an absolutely massive home run off Brewers left-hander Brent Suter. The towering drive was impressive enough. But the enthusiasm and electricity that emanated off Contreras as he circled the bases was all the more notable.
Contreras shushed the home crowd and emphatically high-fived teammates as he descended the dugout steps. Indeed, it was a reminder of the impact he can have on the lineup going forward.
Willson Contreras can be the spark the Cubs so desperately need
Much like his other teammates, Contreras’ season had also gotten off to a slow start. But his early-season struggles need some added context.
The 28-year-old entered Tuesday’s game hitting just .214 with a strikeout rate above 32 percent. That strikeout rate might otherwise be deemed more acceptable if the slugging was there, but it hadn’t been to that point. The two-time All-Star came into Tuesday slugging just .321 with a single homer.
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But there were inherent positives. Contreras was working counts and taking walks. He spoiled tough pitches, even if the outcome of the at-bat didn’t play out the way he’d like.
As for the slugging numbers: well, it made sense. Contreras simply had not hit the ball hard to date. He ranked in the bottom five percent in both average exit velocity and hard-hit rate prior to Tuesday, per Baseball Savant.
However, those batted ball numbers shouldn’t be overly concerning. Contreras saw year-over-year improvements in his exit velocities and hard-hit rates in both 2019 and 2020. He has the pedigree of a guy who can consistently hit the ball hard.
There were more signs of life for Contreras on Tuesday, who has now hit safely in five straight. He had two of the highest exit velocities of the game, with his homer leaving the bat at 110.4 MPH.
Chicago’s star catcher is more than capable of setting the tone. David Ross has stuck with Contreras in the number hole with the hopes he can provide traffic for Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant. But as he showed Tuesday, Contreras’ ability to change a game with one swing and energize his teammates is every bit as important.
The Cubs are still fairly sluggish. However, Contreras plays with constant vitality and is as passionate as anyone in the game. He’s certainly capable of injecting some life into the offense if he can stay hot.