Is It Too Soon to Start the Willson-mania?

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Willson Contreras is putting up impressive numbers for the Cubs this season

A little more than 36 years ago, a pitcher by the name of Fernando Valenzuela, from Mexico, completed his first game with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Up to that point he had pitched 17.2 innings in 10 games, all of them during the 1980 season, giving up 10 hits, no earned runs nor homers, and accruing 16 strikeouts. But it was in 1981 when Valenzuela would see his first start against Houston in a game that ended being a five-hit shutout for the Mexican, starting what became to be known as “Fernandomania”.

Fast-forward to 2016 and turn your eyes to Chicago. The Cubs had a season for the ages and won the World Series after one of the largest droughts in sports history. At the catcher position, there were three players: Miguel Montero, David Ross, and Willson Contreras. Montero and Ross ate virtually all of the games from the start of the season up to mid-June when Contreras made his first Major League appearance for the Cubs after being acquired by the club in 2009 as an amateur free agent. Since he started his first game on June 20 against the St. Louis Cardinals, he became the go-to catcher for Chicago and established himself as the next big thing at the plate given the expected retirement of Ross and the unexpected words of wisdom by Montero earlier this season that would end with him out of the clubhouse.

Willson Contreras had a great stint in 2016, posting a more than respectable .282/.357/.488 slash line with a slightly high BABIP of .339. He walked and struck out above average but was able to get up to 12 home runs to make up for it while reaching a 126 wRC+. Definitely not a bad start of a career. The thing is, Contreras is having an even better second season with the Cubs in 2017 and the Willson-mania is starting to gain traction with the catcher being named the National Player of the Week in early August.

Projection models expect Contreras to keep his pace in most statistical categories. No one forecasted a huge jump in his numbers this year, however. It could be said that a little regression was expected after what he did in 2016. Willson is killing these projections and outpacing the expected numbers they proposed when calculated over spring. For starters, and looking at FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projection system, it fixed Contreras at an expected 117 games played with 490 plate appearances. As of August 10th, he has already played 101 games and appeared 374 times at the plate. Yes, he’s been given the reins of Chicago’s catcher slot and his knees are holding out.

To paint a clearer picture of how Willson’s season is going in relation with what was expected from him, here is a fancy table.

His AVG and OBP, along with his BABIP, have decreased to more average-ish values, true. But there are numbers that call for a great progression in the catcher’s game. He’s almost doubled his home run production from 2016 and will have a chance to even double his DC projection from now to the end of the season. He’s been able to accumulate 0.9 more points in WAR and his wRC+ has lowered but his still on point, much higher than projections put it at the start of the campaign, when they saw Willson as a slightly better than average hitter at best.

To put his improvement in context, he’s performing like this with a WPA/LI of 1.35 instead of the 0.6 he had in 2016. That is, he’s producing more in tough situations while giving his team better chances at winning. Moreover, his Clutch value is 0.72, which is 1.6 points over his past season’s minus-0.88. One may consider Contreras an above average-to-great clutch player.

His batted ball statistics are also worth looking at. I combined the data from 2016 and this season as of August 10. Here are the top ten players in terms of HR/FB over this period of time.

Contreras is a groundball hitter. That is something he may want to change in order to improve his production on the long run. Of the ten players included in the table above he has the third-highest GB/FB value at 1.79, the highest GB% at 53.4% and the second-lowest LD% at 16.8%. What is helping him, though, is his high HR/FB ratio, which is making his deep and high batted balls go over the fence over one fourth of the times he hits them. It is also interesting to see how his BABIP is still at a good .325 while having such a high groundball percentage and putting up hits to the infield 11.4% of the time.

All in all, Contreras is the third-best Cub by wRC+ this season only behind Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo while having considerably fewer plate appearances than those two. Chicago seems to have found a potential gem in their system after eight years of waiting, and the catcher position sure seems covered at Windy City. If only could Contreras hone the little things that may be holding his production back a hair, we will definitely experience the Willson-mania on full swing.

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