CHICAGO — Relaxation didn’t come with Mike Borzello’s offseason getaway.
Just days following the Chicago Cubs were brushed out of the 2015 NLCS by the New York Mets, their catching coach received a phone call from team president Theo Epstein.
Borzello was directed to head down to Mesa, Ariz. and work with Willson Contreras, the organization’s then-23-year-old catcher. He had been participating in the Arizona Fall League after compiling a .324/.404/.466 slash line in 120 games in Double-A.
Once Borzello settled into his seat to watch the prospect, his plans nearly changed. In Contreras’ first at-bat, he pulled his hamstring; Epstein subsequently told Borzello he could go home. But the longtime instructor, who previously coached with the New York Yankees (1996-2006) and Los Angeles Dodgers (2007-10), said he understood the importance of learning about Contreras, along with introducing him to the mental side of the action, like scouting reports.
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“Do you love playing baseball, or do you just play baseball cause you’re good at it?” Borzello recalled asking him in Mesa.
“I love playing baseball. I love this game. love competing,” Contreras said.
Contreras’ response and sizable grin was enough to convince Borzello that the organization possessed a future star at catcher. Fast-forward more than 18 months and Contreras is on his way to becoming that star.
Since his fellow backstop Miguel Montero was released amid his harsh comments towards Jake Arrieta’s slow delivery on June 28, Contreras has started 22 of the team’s last 25 games with a consistency and a maturity that has earned respect — and positive reviews — from Chicago’s pitchers.
Entering the season, starter Jon Lester lost his batterymate David Ross. The two paired up in Boston and Chicago (2013-16) before the veteran catcher retired with his second World Series ring and the Cubs’ first in 108 years. Hence, Borzello said Contreras needed to earn respect from the 12-year, major league southpaw.
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“He kinda goes off of what Jon says,” Borzello said. “He’s more of a listener when it comes to that relationship because he’s the one learning. Rossy (David Ross) was guiding Jon along all the time. Rossy’s just another another level of leadership and intelligence behind the plate.”
Their chemistry appeared evident on Jul. 23 versus the St. Louis Cardinals, as Lester carried a perfect game into the sixth inning. Borzello credited a chunk of that to Contreras’ recognizing Lester’s quick pace early on. From there, the 6-1, 210-pound catcher could essentially call any pitch he pleased.
Moreover, Lester’s struggles with throwing to first base were well-documented despite ridding himself of the yips this season. Contreras has aided those past concerns as well, racking up the second-most pickoffs (5) by a catcher in 2017. The organization converted him from an infielder to his current position in 2011, and Borzello said his arm strength and athleticism is superior to many backstops across the league.
Reliever Hector Rondon also shares a sound connection with Contreras, beyond their Latin roots. Rondon cited his much-improved blocking behind the plate, instilling confidence within himself to throw his slider whenever the situation calls for it.
“You have to have a good mechanic, set your mentality up with a man on third on a breaking pitch, put your body in a good position, and wait for the best to happen,” Cubs’ translator and former catcher Henry Blanco said. “I think he’s done a great job, and he’s going to keep learning.”
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Overall, Contreras’ 11 dWAR on Fangraphs, trailing just the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Yasmani Grandal (11.7), further exhibits his impact defensively. It’s more than doubled since his rookie campaign (4.5), too.
“I think his game-calling and his understanding of situations has gotten a lot better as the season has gone along,” starter John Lackey said. A lot of stuff in the game that you gotta manage in the game behind the plate. Having bunt coverages and that kinda stuff. He’s gotten good at being in charge of those sorta things.”
Lackey wouldn’t go as far as comparing Contreras to his former catcher Yadier Molina because of his year-plus in the majors, yet he said the talent is similar. The Abilene, Texas native pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals from July 2014 through 2015 before signing with their division rivals in the next offseason.
Borzello added that the organization uses Molina as the benchmark for its catchers, given his abundance of prowess at the position. He ranks third among catchers in league history with eight gold gloves, behind Hall of Famers Ivan Rodriguez and Johnny Bench.
On top of that, Lackey hasn’t been afraid to showcase his intensified emotions during his 14-plus years in the majors. He said he enjoys how Contreras does the same, especially after a big strikeout or one of his sniper-like pickoffs.
“I feel like I’m in the heart of the team,” Contreras told CSN Chicago. “I’m behind the plate. I just want to play with my energy, no matter if I hit or not. We need that energy for the second half. And it’s going to be there.”
As Contreras’ confidence has grown as a catcher, his offensive totals have risen. He ranks second at his position in home runs (16) and ISO (.221), along with placing tied for third in wOBA (.351). The Venezuelan owns a respectable .272/.340/.493 slash line, too; he has boosted those numbers while batting .338 in July.
Nevertheless, Borzello said he preached the need to separate poor at-bats from defensive duties throughout the Cubs’ 2016 postseason run. Contreras has clearly held onto that message this season.
“’No matter what happens when you’re hitting, good or bad, I need you to be able to lock it in,’” Borzello told Contreras. “I thought he did an incredible job with that, and that’s not an easy thing for a young player with the games of that magnitude.”
Although the Cubs could still acquire a veteran backstop at the trade deadline to take the pressure off Contreras’ knees, Borzello projected him as a 130-game catcher for the long-term. He shouldn’t be expecting any unplanned trips to Mesa as a result.