MESA, Ariz. — Willson Contreras emerged from the Cubs’ clubhouse on Thursday morning wearing a light blue shirt with a message across the chest that was hard to ignore.
“Don’t believe me, just watch.”
One day earlier, Contreras put on the type of show Cubs fans hope to see throughout
MESA, Ariz. —
“Don’t believe me, just watch.”
One day earlier, Contreras put on the type of show Cubs fans hope to see throughout the upcoming campaign. In a 9-5 victory over the Rangers, the catcher launched a two-run home run off Jesse Chavez, threw out Delino DeShields on a steal attempt of second and later picked Asdrubal Cabrera off first base.
“There is a lot, a lot of people that doubt about myself, because of last year,” Contreras said. “Now, I’m going to be quiet and just wear this shirt.”
While it was only a Cactus League game, Contreras offered a snapshot of the work he has been putting in behind the scenes to move on and learn from last season’s troubles. The catcher has been doing a lot more than working on a motivational mantra.
Since the early days of camp, Contreras has been putting on powerful displays in batting practice at the Cubs’ facility. His swing looks similar to last year, but manager Joe Maddon said there is an important nuanced change that the catcher has been implementing in his pre-swing approach.
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“He’s working on some things and I’ve been really watching him closely,” Maddon said. “We’ve had a lot of conversations. I think what he’s doing at the plate is not an accident right now. I think he’s doing something differently in a good way.”
While Maddon elected not to go into detail, Contreras said he is focusing on loading up earlier. The catcher said it is less about mechanics and more about the rhythm and timing at the start of his swing. Balance and proper weight transfer stemming from his back leg is an important part of that process.
“Last year, I was late on a lot of pitches. It was just timing,” said Contreras, who has two home runs in his first three spring games. “You have to start loading a little bit earlier and then everything will click. The other thing is don’t try to do too much with a fastball. I’m just trying to take my BP swing into the game.”
Per Statcast, Contreras had a .494 slugging percentage against fastballs (all types) in the first four months of the season last year, but saw that production drop to .169 across the last two months.
As Contreras displayed against Texas this week, he boasts one of the best arms in the game among catchers. It is pitch representation that is his main area of focus this spring.
“We focus on everything, but especially my framing,” Contreras said. “That’s been one of my biggest issues and I recognize that.”
According to Statcast, only the White Sox and Rangers had more balls called on pitches on the “edges” than the Cubs last season. Contreras, who caught more innings (1,109 2/3 innings) than any catcher last year, posted minus-17.8 Framing Runs, which ranked last in MLB per Baseball Prospectus.
Contreras has worked closely this spring with Mike Borzello (the Cubs’ associate pitching, catching and strategy coach), but he has also received valuable advice elsewhere. His younger brother, Braves catching prospect William Contreras, said the Cubs catcher could benefit from turning his glove hand slightly while setting up to receive a pitch.
“I started doing it and it feels good,” Willson Contreras said. “I used to stick my glove all the way and now I’m going to show the target, but I’m going to quarter-turn a little bit. That way, my hand can relax and I have a rhythm behind the plate. I was like too stiff, too tough. I talked about that and he was right.”