The Team Effort Behind Cubs Catching Phenom Willson Contreras

Willson Contreras has flattened the National League since debuting with the Cubs in late June. Here's how a cautious third baseman became a breakout catching star.

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Jul 5 2016, 1:00pm

Photo by Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

We know that Wrigley Field sits less than a mile from Lake Michigan's western shore, and we know what Chicago is like in winter, with the lake white-capped and the city whipped and staggering under the winds that blow in off the water. We don't know what the weather was like on the day, late in 2011, that Alex Suarez walked into his boss's office at Wrigley with a sheaf of papers direct from sunny Santo Domingo, and a story about a prospect named Willson Contreras. But let's imagine it was cold and windy. Let's lean into the myth a little.

The Cubs had signed Contreras out of the Venezuelan amateur ranks three summers before, and he spent his first few seasons in the organization playing third base, mostly anonymously, for Chicago's Dominican Summer League squad in Santo Domingo, and then for their short-season Class A club in Boise. Those teams had been fairly unimpressive, on the whole, and Contreras's slash lines hadn't shown much, either.

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But Suarez didn't want to talk about the kid's slash lines. He didn't want to talk about third base, either—Suarez believed that Contreras, with his raw strength, athleticism, intelligence, and passion for the game, would be wasted at the hot corner. His scouts had been banging this drum for years, and Suarez had read all their reports. He'd even been down to Santo Domingo to see the young man for himself. And now he was convinced. "This guy," he said, punching the air in front of him for emphasis, "isn't a third baseman. He's a catcher."

He wasn't then, but he is now. Five years after that cold conversation at Clark and Addison, Contreras is starting behind the plate for one of the best teams in the major leagues, and slashing .309/.406/.636 in the bargain. The story of how he got there despite the odds—and of the resurgent organization that helped him do it—is a baseball story. But there is a trace of myth in it, too, and there's no sense in shutting that out.

Overall pretty good. Photo by David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Converted infielders signed out of Venezuela for pennies don't usually make the big leagues, much less succeed once they're there. Contreras nearly didn't, either. "You've got to remember, he was a guy who was left unprotected [in the Rule 5 draft] as recently as 2014, and wasn't taken," Jason McLeod, the Cubs' Senior Vice President of Player Development and Amateur Scouting, told VICE Sports this week. "I think everyone could see the raw tools [behind the plate] at that point, but he just had so far to go to develop the skills part of it."

Indeed, the first few years could be ugly to watch. Even now, Contreras can look a little bit rough behind the plate. He stabs at pitches inside the strike zone that he should be receiving smoothly, and is clearly still working to develop a comfort with pitch-calling and game-planning at the highest level. The Cubs, for their part, recognize that he's a "work in progress" as a receiver; that phrase that came up, unbidden, in three separate conversations. But they are also quick to acknowledge the speed at which Contreras has taken to the position, and the degree to which he's taken ownership of his own development.

That's not to say he hasn't had help. At every level Contreras has seen of the Cubs organization, from his earliest days catching in Boise to this past week in the big leagues, there have been experienced catchers and catching instructors standing at the ready, watching and coaching and encouraging and correcting. And so the story of Contreras's marvelous major league debut is also very much, and very intentionally, the success story of a relentless organizational focus on eliminating what had been, for many years, an area of real positional weakness.

In 2013, there was Mark Johnson—himself a former big-league catcher—introducing Contreras to the finer points of the position a few miles northwest of Chicago, as Contreras's manager at Low-A Kane County. The next year, Dave Keller, the manager at High-A Daytona, made a point of pushing Contreras and another young backstop then playing for that squad, Kyle Schwarber, to learn from and grow with each other. Their brief period together in Florida—Schwarber played just a few games there in 2014, at the end of his first pro season—and their time together at Double-A Tennessee the next year made a world of difference for Contreras's development.

"I think where he kind of put it all together," said Suarez, now Assistant Director for Player Development and International Scouting for the Cubs, "was last year when he started the year with Schwarber." McLeod agreed completely. "I think it helped a lot that they were teammates for that first few months in 2015," he said. "It's something we don't really talk about a lot, but him getting to watch how Kyle went about his business every day to prepare for games had a big effect on his development."

Interestingly, both executives suggested that Schwarber's biggest impact on Contreras was not in his performance at the plate—though of course that mattered—but in modeling the way he almost willed himself to become a big league catcher, despite the odds stacked against a man of his build making it behind the plate. Contreras has the body, unlike Schwarber, but he no doubt identified with the desire to prove the doubters wrong—to prove that Suarez and all the scouts who said he was a catcher were right.

Spoiler alert: this is a home run. Photo by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Whatever it was, it worked for both men. By the time the 2015 season drew to a close, Schwarber had rocketed to the big leagues, and the improvements the team saw in Contreras's catching had bled over into his hitting. He torched the Southern League, triple-slashing an eye-opening .333/.413/.478 over 521 Double-A plate appearances, and winning the batting title by a hair over the Atlanta Braves' Mallex Smith. After the season, now very much aware what they had on their hands, and eager to prepare him to take the next step in his development, the Cubs sent Contreras to the Arizona Fall League to work on his receiving with big-league catching coach Mike Borzello and minor league field coordinator Tim Cossins.

That time in Arizona mattered, both in terms of Contreras's setup behind the plate and in terms of his confidence. "It's been a gradual progression [behind the plate for him]," said Suarez, "but I would say that the addition of Tim Cossins to our staff had a huge impact on his development. Cossins' ability to teach mechanically, and his understanding of the inner workings of catching, is amazing."

"When I saw him in Spring Training [the next year], he just had this different aura about him," McLeod said. "Like, 'I'm the dude here, I'm the guy on this field.' It was really impressive to watch." By the time a hamstring injury ended Contreras's time in the AFL, the kid understood what the Cubs would expect of him as a catcher at the big-league level.

There was still some work to do, starting with his approach at the dish. "When you watched him last year," McLeod said, "his approach almost looked like he was going up there saying, 'OK, I am not going to take these big wild swings early in the count unless it's a cookie that I can really unleash on, and therefore I am not letting you get me out on your pitch, I am not letting you strike me out.' There were times it looked like he was like, 'I'm going to let the ball get deep so that I can see it, and if I have to take a single to right field, I'm taking a single to right field.'

"As an evaluator, there were some times when you were like, 'Man, Willson, get the bat-head out, don't always back the ball up so much, man. You're a big strong guy, go hit it!' And there were times that, even though he was getting hits, I was like, 'Man, you know, I don't know if that's going to work, he's just letting everything get so deep.'"

The Cubs, in short, weren't completely confident that Contreras was ready for big-league pitching. On top of that, they already had a glut of catchers at that level after Schwarber joined incumbents Miguel Montero and David Ross on a roster charging toward the playoffs.

Couple of dang unicorns over here. Photo by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

And so it was that Contreras headed into 2016 with a remarkably successful run at the Double-A level in the rearview, and very low visibility ahead in terms of where he fit into the Cubs' short-term plans. The club did have some internal discussions during the offseason about how they might carry all four catchers—Montero, Ross, Schwarber, and Contreras—on the roster, but even after accounting for the latter two's positional flexibility, it was tough to make the playing time models work the way they wanted. Chicago entered the campaign confident in their depth, and unsure of how exactly it might be deployed going forward.

On April 7th, they found out just how much they'd be tested. Schwarber, a beloved member of the clubhouse and an integral part of the lineup, left the second game of the season, a road matchup in Arizona, with a devastating knee injury that will keep him off the field through early 2017, and which may yet foreclose the possibility of spending meaningful time at catcher in the future. Contreras's timeline would have to be accelerated. Still, there were two respected incumbent veterans on the big club, and the kid hadn't proven that he could hit Triple-A pitching.

By mid-June, that was no longer an issue. "At the plate, he made a couple of small mechanical adjustments," Suarez said. "Just lowering his hands, and giving him a little leg load, almost like a gather, to help him see the ball a little better—that's helped him keep his barrel in the zone a little longer."

McLeod saw it, too. "He took his approach last year," he said, "and he reworked it, and now his plate discipline is so good, he's seeing pitches early in the count, he's laying off pitchers' pitches for strikes, and I think that's really allowed him to have a lot of confidence about where the pitches are in the zone that he's really going to want to attack, and to hit behind in the count."

The pieces had finally come together. In late May, when the inevitable bumps and bruises of the season caught up with Montero, forcing him first onto the disabled list and then into a sustained period of underperformance, the time was finally right. Contreras was called up just in time for the Cubs' June 17th game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and with his first-pitch homer off of Francisco Liriano, the journey that began on the backfields of Venezuela and took seven years to arrive at Wrigley had, in defiance of all probability, reached its newest, biggest stage.

Obligatory non-swing photo. Photo by Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

There will be bumps along the way. Contreras is a wonderful hitter, and by all accounts a great teammate; if there's anyone who can succeed at this, it's him. But jumping right onto the 25-man roster of the best team in baseball is incredibly hard, and catching a pitching staff full of experienced and talented veterans at the top of their game—John Lackey, Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, and Jason Hammel—is even harder. The Cubs are working to make it as easy as possible for him.

"I think," Suarez said, "that the idea is to set him up with guys that throw a lot of strikes—Lackey, Hendricks, and Hammel—to allow him to focus less on calling the pitches and more on receiving them when they arrive." It seems to be working, for now. "I think it speaks a lot that Willson caught [Lackey] the next time around through the rotation [after catching him in his starting debut]," McLeod said. "Certainly, a veteran with the pedigree of Lackey, I think if there was something he didn't like, you wouldn't have seen Willson back there again. So I think, silently, that said a lot."

It helps, surely, that Joe Maddon's clubhouse is remarkably free of the "Hey kid, go park my car" attitude that can be found elsewhere in the league. "For a team that has so many young players, we have the right veterans here," said McLeod. "It's a very loose, laid-back clubhouse, led by Joe [Maddon], and you've got those veterans who, all they care about is winning. Because Lester's like that, and Lackey, I think they're past that 'We've got to give these guys a bunch of crap, they gotta pay their dues' attitude. They don't care. They just want you to step in and be prepared and ready to help this team win."

That extends even to the guys whose jobs Contreras is stepping into. "I think the catching staff is certainly taking it upon themselves to not overload him with things," McLeod said. "They'll work on the basics of the receiving, and certainly they're helping him through game management, and calling pitches and things like that, but right now it's about allowing him to do more of a crash course in big-league catching. Being around David Ross and Miguel Montero, I think, is going to end up paying huge dividends for him down the road."

Perhaps it doesn't need to be said, but a big-league clubhouse that authentically selfless is a rare thing. Rare, too, is the kind of organization where a young player can grow up over seven years, convert from one position to another, and be part of the solution at exactly the right time, without any drop-off on the team's best-in-the-league pace. That's just the way things work in Chicago these days. This couldn't happen just anywhere.

"For us right now," McLeod said, "if he continues on this path that he's been on, and continues to develop as a receiver, and as a leader back there behind the plate, then he's going to catch and be a front-line guy in the league for a long time. Whether that begins next year or the middle of next year, or the year after, we hope that's how it's going to happen." For a team whose baseball motto du jour is "when it happens," that seems pretty darn appropriate. Willson Contreras has arrived. He's a catcher now. He isn't going anywhere.

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