A family thing

Despite the fact that he and his kid brother are the most illustrious catching family since the Molinas, big sib Willson Contreras didn’t start out behind the dish. The Cubs started him out in the infield, and only moved him behind the plate a few years into his pro career. I hope that whoever was responsible for that idea got a promotion for his trouble, as it netted the Cubs one of the best catchers in baseball.

Willson Contreras made the majors midway through his eighth year in pro ball, at the age of 24, and the position change may have contributed to the length of his development. Little bro William is just 24 as I write this — he turns 25 on Christmas Eve! — and he had a much straighter path to the majors.

The Braves signed William in 2015, the year before the Cubs called up Willson, and William played nothing but catcher in the Braves system. In 2018, Willson made his first All-Star team, and William got promoted to Single-A. He got his first cup of coffee in the abbreviated 2020 season. This year, both brothers made the All-Star Team. It’s really neat! It isn’t supposed to be this easy. It won’t always be.

Willson Contreras had an emotionally rocky year with the Cubs, as as he was pretty universally expected to be traded at the deadline, then found himself in the unexpected position of not going anywhere and staying with the team that ostensibly only kept him because no one else bowled them over with a trade offer. No fun, but this winter, he’ll get paid.

William, thankfully, knows exactly where he’ll be lacing up his cleats for the foreseeable future, even though he’s one of the team’s few young stars who hasn’t yet been extended by Alex Anthopoulos.

I’m not going to play devil’s advocate: we all know William’s good. But…

How good is he?

First, the negatives. His glove is not great, which is part of why the Braves didn’t hand him the job prior to now. He’s in the 20th percentile in framing, though he’s in the 51st percentile in his pop time to 2nd base. Overall, by Fangraphs’s defensive ratings, among the 40 MLB catchers with at least 500 defensive innings played, Travis d’Arnaud was fifth in baseball in defense; William Contreras was 30th, three spots worse than his brother Willson, whose defense has long been viewed as a shortcoming.

At the plate, William has got too much swing and miss in his bat. He’s in the 6th percentile in Whiff% and 13th percentile in K%. Those are weak elements in Michael Harris II’s game, too.

But Will has a couple of major advantages over Mike: first, his chase rate is slightly better than league average (54th percentile) and his walk rate is significantly better, 77th percentile. He’s got a hole in his swing, but he currently has a far better understanding of the zone. (He’s also three years older than Michael.)

The very solid walk rate is nice, but his power is much more impressive. He was in the 82nd percentile in xwOBA and the 90th percentile in expected slugging, and the 91st percentile in barrels. He hit .278 last year, but that was aided by a .344 BABIP; I’d guess he will not hit for a particularly high average in most years, but his secondary average will likely more than make up for it. The guy can rake.

What he needs to avoid

So, we’ve got a young hard-hitting catcher with reasonably weak defense. Should we make him a cornerstone of the team’s future, as we did with Javy Lopez? Or, if you’re like me, did you read that description and nervously ask yourself if he’ll turn into Gary Sanchez?

Sanchez is a sad story, really. His first two years were so far better than anything he’s managed since then that it’s a bit hard to remember how limitless his potential once seemed. Back in 2017, I took him as the 30th overall selection in the Hardball Times Franchise Player Draft, ahead of Clayton Kershaw and Anthony Rizzo (and just after Hunter Greene, Victor Robles, and Justin Verlander — prospects will break your heart). As I wrote then: “Sanchez is one of the best young power hitters in the game, along with Aaron Judge, the Ruth to his Gehrig.”

Anyway… Sanchez is still a good power hitter, but, basically, he cannot get on base enough (or hit it over the fence enough) to overcome his extreme inability to make contact with the baseball. His xSLG is 76th percentile, and his Barrel% is 92nd percentile, but his Whiff% is 14th percentile, his K% is 10th percentile, and his BB% is 53rd percentile. It’s a relatively fine line, but ultimately, while Contreras may be a slightly better power hitter, he is much better at getting on base, which is the biggest difference between a below-average player like Sanchez and an above-average player like Contreras.

What he needs to do next

He was an All-Star last year, but I don’t expect as smooth a ride in 2023. In order to repeat the results he posted last year, Contreras needs to improve in a few key areas, and not only defensively. Just like with Harris, there’s too much whiff in his game. He has taken meaningful steps to improve — he cut down on the proportion of pitches outside the zone he swung at, and as a result he improved his contact percentage slightly.

But it still remains markedly below league average, because he is much worse than most hitters at making contact on the pitches outside the zone: he makes contact with just 49.8% of pitches outside the zone, compared with a league average of 63.5% of pitches outside the zone. Overall, he made contact with 68.4% of pitches, compared with a league average of 76.6%.

That’s not good. It’s actually even worse than Sanchez, who for his career has made contact with 57.4% of pitches outside the zone, and 71.9% of pitches overall.

Up to now, William Contreras has seen a much higher proportion of pitches in the zone than most batters — 47.8% of pitches were in the zone in 2022, compared to a league average of 41.3%. But now that he’s had a highly successful All-Star season, the book will be out on him, and everyone will realize that he can’t hit it if you throw it outside the zone, so if you want to get Contreras out, don’t throw him a strike.

That’s why I expect he’ll have a much lower average this year, as pitchers learn to exploit that weakness in his game, though I think his power numbers and his on-base numbers will still play. His good walk rate gives cause for optimism that he can take pitches and continue to get on base once pitchers throw him fewer strikes. But this will be a season of transition, and we’ll learn a lot about him as we see how he adjusts.

If he’s able to take his sophomore struggles in stride, he’ll be a franchise cornerstone.