A few years ago while visiting friends in Arizona, I stopped by the Cubs old stomping grounds, Fitch Park, to catch some instructional league baseball. I wandered over to the fields where the catchers were doing drills. Without a roster sheet and their masks on, it was hard to tell who was who.
But one catcher stood out among the others. He exploded out of his crouch on bunt drills, pounced on the baseball, and fired bullets to second base. And it wasn't just the athleticism that was evident, there was the fire with which he played. Every rep was handled with the seriousness of a postseason game.
"Who is that guy?", I asked the coach next to me.
"Willson Contreras", he replied with a smile.
Not to take anything away from any of the catchers there at that time, but there was Willson Contreras and there was everyone else. I asked everyone who would listen about him. There were some positives, but he was raw. Everyone seemed to agree on that. He sometimes played out of control and struggled to keep that passion in check. His hands were quick and strong at the plate, but the approach wavered, often veering into an aggressive, pull-happy approach. The tools were so obvious, but Contreras wasn't playing up to them. Until this year, that is.
"What has been the key to his improvement?", I asked Mark Johnson, an ex-big league catcher who is managing the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League.
"Time," he replied.
Johnson said that matter-of-factly, as if the answer was obvious. And it should have been. Talent plus time. It's a simple formula but we are so focused on the former and tend to dismiss the latter. If anyone would have a great perspective on Contreras' progression over time, it's Johnson, who coached him two years ago at Kane County and is doing it again this fall.
After letting me soak in that word for a while, Johnson went on,"He's an incredible athlete. He's really worked on shortening up his stroke and his throws."
Contreras has always had a strong arm, but the arm action for a catcher must be short. Every fraction of a second counts and if you're rearing back to fire a laser to 2B, it may already be too late before you release the ball. He now has a much shorter, quicker arm action while still maintaining that good arm strength.
Similarly, Contreras has become more consistent with his approach at the plate. He has been patient for stretches, but would then quickly revert to his old ways. And then he has those quick, strong hands. They've always been there. I remember a conversation with a veteran scout at Kane County who told me to watch a hitter's hands. Can he turn on a good fastball? Moments later, Contreras ripped a 97 mph Tyrell Jenkins FB just foul down the LF line. The scout turned to look at me but said nothing. He just smiled.
The difference now is that Contreras trusts that talent -- those hands, that arm strength, that batting eye. He doesn't have to rear back to fire bullets or load up to hit the ball with authority. He has refined his approach and now waits for pitches he can drive. He has learned to channel those passions into productive play on the field.
The talent was always there, Contreras just needed time.
Let me back track a bit here. To put that in the past tense is a bit misleading. Contreras still needs time.
When I asked Johnson what he needs to work on to make it to the big leagues, he responded, "Just the nuances of catching, the pitch calling, game management, but he's getting here."
And then he added, "He's an incredible athlete (something he repeated a few times) and he's a hard worker. He was very good this year but he's still not close to being as good as he can be. He still has a lot of room before he reaches his ceiling. He just has to keep working."
Considering how good Contreras was in AA Tennessee last year, that is saying something. This is a 23-year-old prospect who had a .333/.413/.478 slash line, a .413 wOBA, an 11.9 K rate vs a 10.9% walk rate -- and, on top of all of that, displayed catch-and-throw skills that most within the organization consider to be the best in their system.
Can he really be a lot better than that?
Time will tell.