Consistent Hard Contact Offers Optimism for Willson Contreras Rebound
The Cubs have not gotten the kind of production they expected from Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, and others anchoring the heart of the order. There are any number of explanations for these respective slumps, whether it’s injuries, the inability to make in-game adjustments due to the lack of video access, and perhaps even the lack of energy from fans.
One other culprit is plate approach.
Willson Contreras has fallen victim to significant stretches of poor production, though his numbers on the season look okay enough. The high-energy backstop has a 104 wRC+ as of this writing, putting him just four percentage points above league average. While being above average is a good thing, just barely sneaking over the line doesn’t square with his exceptionally good batted-ball data.
Contreras is currently at career high levels in exit velocity (90.5 mph), barrel percentage (9.5), and hard-hit percentage (51.1). That latter mark puts him 22nd in all of MLB, and only nine of the 21 ahead of him have generated more batted-ball events. In other words, when he hits the ball, he is hitting the ball.
That consistent hard contact has contributed to a career-high .369 expected wOBA (xwOBA), so why is his actual wOBA only .323, which would be the second worst mark of his career? And why, again, is he just barely above league average when it comes to run production.
The problem isn’t what happens when he makes contact, it’s how infrequently he’s doing it. Contreras is swinging and missing at a career high 37.5% of pitches he sees. That is really, really not good and eclipses his previous career high of 33.1% by a decent margin. He is currently sitting in the 4th and 12th percentiles among all hitters in whiff percentage and strikeout percentage, respectively.
For me, though, there is less cause for concern here than what might seem to be similar issues for. The first reason for optimism is that we’re not seeing a jump in whiffs on pitches in the zone, where contreras is basically right on track with his career averages. That means his poor contact numbers are coming from his outside of the zone swings, especially on breaking and offspeed pitches.
This is at least mildly encouraging because it’s something to which he can adjust. You can’t fix things like slow bat speed or diminished strength, but it’s possible to tinker with approach issues even at this late juncture. Contreras has always had a lot of swing-and-miss in his game and he’s been in the 25th percentile or worse in every year of his career except 2018, when he was near league average under the tutelage of the contact-focused Chili Davis.
And before you go thinking that’s a statement about hitting coaches, I’ll point out that he also finished with a career-low 100 wRC+ that season. That anemic production was largely the product of fatigue, as Contreras admitted the following spring that he had stopped working out and was physically exhausted in the second half.
It’s clear, then, that he doesn’t have to get back to league-average whiff rates. If he can can simply make the adjustments needed to bring his contact numbers closer to the 15-20th percentile range rather than the <5th range he’s in now, his actual numbers should start climbing toward his expected results in a hurry.