Willson Contreras: Historic Power Season?

On Wednesday night against the White Sox, Willson Contreras had himself a game: he clubbed two home runs, including a Grand Slam, that pushed his season homer total up to 15.  He is one of five Cubs — along with Baez, Schwarber, Rizzo, and Bryant — with 15 or more home runs at this point in the season.

But Contreras’ home run total is likely the most impressive, because:

  1. He hit 10 all of last season.
  2. He is a catcher.
  3. His defensive metrics demand that he carry a greater offensive load to make his presence in the lineup worthwhile.

While I personally am still wrapping my head around the value of pitch-framing and how much of an impact it has on a catcher’s worth, what i do know is that an OPS of .950 and a wRC+ of 145 (meaning Contreras is 45% better than an average player at his position) are very good. He is, deservedly, tracking to start the All-Star game at Catcher for the National League for the second consecutive season.

Contreras is objectively great, and he might end up having an historically great 2019. Through 74 games, Contreras’ 15 homers put him on pace for 33 this year… that would give him the second-most home runs for a Cubs catcher in their history behind Gabby Hartnett’s 36 in 1930.  In the history of Major League Baseball, a catcher has hit 35 or more home runs 12 times.  Three of those guys had fewer homers through 74 games than Contreras has:

So Willson has an outside chance at 35 dingers this year, though it’ll be hard to dismiss how awful his 2nd-half of 2018 was and how it’s entirely possible that might happen again.

The last Cubs catcher to hit 30 home runs was Rick Wilkins in 1993.  Through 74 games, Wilkins had 13 home runs and a .952 OPS… very similar to what Contreras has done so far. So it’s entirely possible we are seeing a near-repeat of what Wilkins did 26 years ago, except Contreras has better long-term prospects and an absolute cannon for an arm. And his bat matters more to this 2019 Cubs team that has World Series aspirations than Wilkins’ did for a squad that went 84-78.

There’s no guarantee Contreras’ performance will continue.  His home run totals by month have dropped from seven in April, to five in May, to just three so far in June (and two of those were in the same game). Contreras’ OPS has dropped each month as well (1.043 to .898 to .878, which is still very good). If he continues to decline, we may be talking about him as a guy who has a bad habit of falling apart past the All-Star Break — in his career in the 2nd half of seasons, Contreras has a slash line of .253/.341/.429, good for a .770 OPS.  He’s worse in every conceivable way after the All-Star Game so far in his career.

That said, Contreras has never been THIS good in the first half of a season, and that’s for a guy who started the All-Star Game just last year. He re-dedicated himself in the offseason to work harder between games and not drop off in his training regimen.  All that work could mean a prolonged period of success that carries into September and (hopefully) October; at least, that’s what the Cubs and their fans hope.

As you’re watching other story lines for the Cubs in the second half of the year — Craig Kimbrel’s addition, Adbert Alzolay’s ascension, Javy Baez’s progression — don’t lose sight of Willson Contreras’ reclamation.  He could become the third Cub ever to hit 30 homers, or even the 9th catcher period to ever hit 35 home runs.

After so much was made of Contreras’ horrendous last 2 months of 2018, what a redemption narrative that would be.

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