What's going on with Willson Contreras' offense?

Tony Andracki
NBC Sports Chicago

This was supposed to be the year Willson Contreras made the case as the best catcher on the planet.

Everything was lining up for it. 

He was going into a season as the "bell cow" catcher, with no veteran like Miguel Montero or David Ross to cede playing time to. 

He flashed his potential with an unreal stretch last season before getting hurt and still finished with 21 homers, 74 RBI and a .499 slugging percentage in only 377 at-bats.

He showed the swag, putting himself in the same category as Yadier Molina and Buster Posey during Cubs Convention in January.

He had the support of his manager, Joe Maddon, who has said several times in 2018 that he would take Contreras over any other catcher in baseball.

Yet, that's not how this season has played out.

Contreras has drawn rave reviews from Maddon and Cubs pitchers in how he blocks balls in the dirt, calls games, works the gameplan and - of course - how he can control the running game with that laser of a right arm.

It's just the offense.

He hasn't hit a homer since Aug. 1 and in those 31 games, he's slashing .177/.288/.219, good for a .507 OPS.

His only extra base hits in that five-and-a-half-week span are four doubles (including a hustle double Monday night) and he's driven in just 10 runs.

This is the same guy who collected five extra-base hits and drove in 10 runs in just two games against the White Sox in mid-May.

Is it just that he's tired?

That's entirely possible. Contreras has caught more innings than any catcher in baseball by a wide margin.

Contreras has been behind the plate for 1000.2 innings this season, 45.2 more than the next closest (Jonathan Lucroy - 955 innings) in baseball and 91.2 innings more than the next closest in the National League (Tucker Barnhart - 909)

So rest certainly is playing a factor

"Physically, I watch him run, I watch him throw, I watch him block the ball, I watch his energy," Maddon said. "It seems to be good. The difference there is the offensive side has not been [what you expect]. I promise you this - if he clicks about 3 or 4 balls in a row, he'll look exactly like he did last year in August and September. 

"We just gotta get the ball on the fat part of the bat again. That's primarily it. And that could be the residue of being a little bit tired. It's hard to say with him because he always is energetic. He's strong - he's a strong human, man."

Obviously rest is not the whole story here.

Contreras didn't start heating up and really flashing that game-changing power until the middle of last season after a few months of the grind behind the plate. (It's worth noting that with Montero in the picture for the first half last year, Contreras wasn't catching as much on a consistent basis as he has been this season with Victor Caratini as his main backup all year.)

But the real issue here is Contreras' swing. Rest is surely a factor to some extent, but these are not the charts of a hitter trending in the right direction:

This is his hard contact percentage in 2017 (left) and 2018 (right). You can see the huge drop over the last couple months this season, but also note how his hard contact steadily rose all 2017:

willson_chart_1.jpg

 

And this is Contreras' exit velocity in relation to the MLB average over the last three seasons:

willson_chart_2.jpg

In 2017, Contreras barreled balls up 10.3 percent of the time (29 barrels on 282 batted balls). This year, that number is down to just 6.8 percent of the time (22 barrels on 325 batted balls).

Contreras has acknowledged his lack of power all season, but didn't really have an answer for it, either.

It's probably a combination of needing more rest, pressing at the plate and trying to do too much, swinging at bad pitches and how he's being pitched. The last few weeks, many of Contreras' at-bats are ending with soft groundballs to the left side as opposing pitchers are hammering him in on the hands with pitches.

With Victor Caratini playing well of late, Contreras may find himself on the bench more often. 

Tuesday marked only the third time Caratini started a game where Cole Hamels wasn't pitching since the first week of August.

But with the Cubs in a pennant race, it's been hard for Maddon to turn away from Contreras and to a rookie catcher who was hitting .151 with a .414 OPS in 59 plate appearances from July 20 to Sept. 4. 

Plus, Contreras has been a solid choice in run prevention categories the last few months even when he's not hitting.

"The throws he's made, the game-calling, the adherence to the game-calling has been really good," Maddon said. "The biggest difference to me is just consistent hard contact out of him. Ball in the air, ball in the gap, ball in the stands - we haven't seen that recently.

"So if he is tired, obviously, that's a definite indicator that he may be. But conversationally and watching him, I'm not getting that."

Still, some extra time off for Contreras right now could still be a good thing - to give him rest, let him recharge mentally and find a way to get his confidence back for the stretch run and into October.

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