By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Somewhere nearing the 18th inning of the six-hour, five-minute marathon game in early May, a Yankee approached Cubs catcher Willson Contreras and asked him what kind of energy drink he consumes.
Contreras was bouncing around Wrigley Field as the clock moved past midnight. Players marveled at his energy. It doesn’t require Red Bull.
“That comes from my heart,” Contreras said.
That natural energy is what defined Contreras during his rookie season in 2016, from when he burst onto the scene with a home run in his first at-bat and all the way to his RBI double in Game 7 of the World Series. Contreras kept delivering in big moments and pumping his chest along the way.
His natural enthusiasm for the game is relentless. It’s just how Contreras is between the lines. Inside the clubhouse, he’s a quiet 25-year-old still settling into his first full season in the majors.
Contreras typically arrives at the ballpark five-and-a-half hours before first pitch and settles into his routine. As the Cubs’ new starting backstop, he has to prepare not only himself but the starting pitcher. Considering Contreras only began catching in 2012, he has come a long way.
“He’s insatiable,” manager Joe Maddon said.
Cubs catching coach Mike Borzello has been instrumental in the growth Contreras from infielder to major league catcher. Maddon noticed how the two were constantly side by side during spring training and now before each game. Borzello helps lay out the scouting report for each game and how it applies to the starting pitcher in a workshop-like format.
With the help of Borzello, Contreras has excelled in calling games behind the plate.
“Willy’s smart, he’s really good,” Maddon said. “He understands what’s going on out there. He understands the importance of that relationship with the pitcher. But we have this really unique situation where Borz does a wonderful job of prepping these guys. So you have the teacher and the student coming together. That’s why it’s worked out so well.”
To his credit, Contreras has committed himself to absorbing every bit of Borzello’s scouting reports. He knows what pitch to call with each hitter, the strengths and weaknesses of every individual matchup and how to handle the running game. The latter task is of the utmost importance with ace Jon Lester on the mound.
With David Ross retired (at least from baseball), Contreras has stepped in as Lester’s personal backstop. With Lester unable to throw to first base, Contreras has managed well in keeping runners from stealing bases. This season, he’s throwing out 36 percent of runners. In fact, Contreras has gunned down eight of 14 runners with Lester on the mound. Now, it’s running a risk to attempt a steal on Lester.
Managing Lester on the mound is a difficult task, but Contreras has handled the added responsibility well.
“I just learned from what he wants to do,” Contreras said. “Learned how he likes to pitch, how he likes to sequence the pitches. I learned how he likes to move to home plate, even though he doesn’t throw to first — never.
“But with Jon Lester, it’s just been special for me. Especially for my first year being catching, because he’s been humble enough to listen to me.”
Learning how to handle the veteran pitching staff has been just another major adjustment for the young Contreras. Ross knew like clockwork how to work the arsenal of Lester or how to calm down the fiery John Lackey. He carried himself with a professional approach during his long career.
Contreras found that he had to prepare himself each day with the pitcher in mind, too. That means arriving earlier to the ballpark and spending extra time in the scouting report, all in addition to working on his swing.
Yes, being the starting catcher even means going out to the mound and trying to mellow down Lackey.
“I was a little bit afraid of going out to the mound with Lackey, because he gets pissed off,” Contreras said. “He’s a gamer. I love it. But I have to pick the right spot to go out to the mound and say something. This year, I’ve not been afraid because I have to take charge of the situation.”
This season, Contreras has emerged as one of the best defensive catchers in baseball. He ranks second among backstops in defensive win shares at 5.5, per FanGraphs, trailing only the Dodgers’ Yasmani Grandal and his 7.6 mark. After studying the defensive prowess of Yadier Molina and Salvador Perez, he now resembles them behind the plate.
Cubs pitchers have been impressed with what they’ve seen of Contreras. Jake Arrieta said recently on the Bernstein & Goff Show that the changes are “night and day” from 2016. A great deal of work has gone into that process.
Contreras arrived on the scene last season as the jubilant rookie who provided a spark along the road to a World Series championship. He now applies that enthusiasm to a critical role with the Cubs.
No energy drinks are needed.
“I just want to win the ballgame,” he said. “That’s how I play.”