Is Willson Contreras in Dog Days Slump or Being Doggone Overused?
Joe Maddon excels at keeping his position players and starting rotation well rested, but he’s generally less concerned when it comes to bullpen arms. One need look no further than Steve Cishek and his possibly historic season to see that. Now add Willson Contreras into the workhorse category.
He’s already set career highs for games started at catcher (96) and innings caught (880). He also leads the majors in both categories, with a considerable innings-played lead over the next-closest catcher (Oakland’s Jonathan Lucroy with 828 innings).
The good news is Contreras’s high numbers mean successful avoidance of the DL. On the other hand, his August-long slump has him slashing just .208/.309/.292. So is this just a typical slump most hitters suffer over a long season or a product of hitting the wall due to a Cishek-like workload?
History suggests the latter. Since Contreras began getting the majority of Cubs catching starts in July 2016, this August has been the least productive month of his career by far.
Further, the Cubs’ other backup options haven’t been sterling. The 35-year-old Chris Gimenez proved to be worth no more than his minor-league deal. Victor Caratini frames pitches better than Contreras, but his defense isn’t spectacular otherwise and his bat hasn’t inspired Maddon to give him a normal backup catcher’s load.
Known as a bat-first catcher, Caratini’s defensive shortcomings aren’t new. However, this has proven a largely lost year for whatever defensive development might have been possible. He has started just 18 games behind the plate at the big league level and caught in just 18 of 32 games played with AAA Iowa.
His light catching load in Iowa remains a head-scratcher. When Caratini was demoted in June, one expected him to catch nearly every day under the eye of Iowa manager and former catcher Marty Pevey. But this never happened, suggesting either injury or something else.
I asked about this when I interviewed Pevey last month (this exchange did not make the final Q&A), but he just sidestepped the question, neither confirming nor denying an injury.
But if Caratini was nursing something, it did not affect his hitting at Iowa. He hit .313 with an .887 OPS, and continued hitting well upon promotion back to the Cubs in late May. However, this month he’s slumped even more than Contreras. By batting only .100 with a .282 OPS, a reluctant Maddon has one extra reason to keep Contreras in the lineup.
Whatever the case with Caratini, Contreras’s workload remains concerning. For instance, Caratini has started just one of the last 10 games. This makes one wonder when Contreras will get enough rest to recharge for the September stretch run.
And let’s not forget injury risk. Look back to just last August, when a strained hamstring put Contreras on the DL for a month. Hamstring injuries are usually products of either a poor daily stretching routine and/or tightness from cumulative use, such as catching every day.
So as far as the team’s hopes of a deep playoff run are concerned, it behooves Maddon to bite the bullet and rest Contreras far more moving forward. If this means more starts for a slumping Caratini and a previously ineffective Gimenez (assuming a September call-up), so be it.
After all, too many August starts behind the plate can be the quickest way to age a young catcher like Contreras.