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In 2021, Willson Contreras caught 935 ⅔ innings behind the plate. Thus far in his career, he has only logged more time behind the plate once, in 2018.
The reason Contreras had to take on so much of the workload last season? The absence of a reliable backup catcher. Victor Caratini had served behind Contreras from 2017 to 2020, but he was traded to San Diego with Yu Darvish before last season.
As a result, the Cubs had to use a parade of backups.
Robinson Chirinos. Austin Romine. Tony Wolters. P.J. Higgins. Jose Lobaton. Erick Castillo. Tyler Payne. A few others may have snuck on the catcher’s gear and put in an inning or two a catcher without notice.
Naturally, one of the priorities for team president Jed Hoyer and new general manager Carter Hawkins in the offseason was to secure a reliable option behind Contreras. At roughly the quarter mark of the 2022 season, Yan Gomes has surpassed backup catcher expectations.
“He’s played to a starter level when he’s been in there,” manager David Ross said. “And to have him continue to work well with the pitching staff, get to know them, I think he’s done a phenomenal job in every aspect.”
Gomes was batting .261 with two home runs and four doubles through over 70 plate appearances headed into this week’s games. By comparison, last year’s cadre of backup catchers posted a batting average perilously close to the Mendoza line. And Gomes’ presence has afforded Contreras the luxury of taking time off from catching. Something that, having recently turned 30, he appreciates.
“He takes a little bit of pressure off of my shoulders. I can relax a little bit more, I can rest my body a little bit more,” Contreras said.
A wealth of experience
Gomes is more than just a reliable backup. He is 34 and in his 11th year of Major League service time. With Contreras, Gomes provides a duo of Cubs catchers who have valuable veteran experience.
This year, with more young arms like Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson, and Scott Effross making their mark on the pitching staff, the experience that Contreras and Gomes have collectively becomes even more important.
“They both have a World Series under their belt, so I mean, any chance I get I’m going to try and pick their brain, try and talk to them and learn as much as I can from them,” Steele said.
For a pitcher like Steele, having the two of them has been good because they are able to pick up on how his stuff looks quickly. Usually in the pregame bullpen session, they can see which pitches he might not have a feel for that day and help Steele adjust. He said they have also been helpful with in-game redirection on his mechanics. He said that Contreras and Gomes will often make mound visits to remind him about things like staying on his back foot longer or making sure he’s finishing the front of his delivery fully.
“The next time, you think about it before they come out, and that’s when things are going good. That’s how it’s supposed to be,” Steele said. “It’s good to have catchers that notice things like that and know who you are and are able to see it with their eyes as they’re catching you and come out and say something to you.
“Things like that are helpful and go a long way.”
The catcher conversation
Having a manager who is a former catcher helps too. Ross spent 15 years in the majors and has two World Series rings. He knows perhaps better than anyone the value of what guys like Contreras and Gomes are able to do for their team and for their pitching staff.
One of those values, Ross said, is being able to learn a team’s group of pitchers quickly. Knowing their personalities and figuring out how they like to work on the mound is key to helping them pitch successfully. Gomes is especially good at that, Ross said.
At the start of spring training, with time to get to know each other already compressed, Steele said that Gomes came and approached him right away.
“That was a great sign right off the jump. He was making initiative to get to know me and started learning who I am,” Steele said.
Gomes’ main focus in the beginning was not to learn their pitch mixes, mechanics, or any of the other technical aspects of his pitchers. Instead, he said he puts all pitching things aside and spends his time getting to know them personally. Gomes is looking for things like who needs a pat on the shoulder to help them through a rough patch or a bad inning, and who needs a kick in the behind. That takes time to figure out. Pitchers don’t take it well when catchers go through one bullpen session and start right off with critiques or suggestions. Catchers have to spend spring training and even into the first few weeks of the season to learn each of their tendencies, and that’s easier to do with more experience.
Both catchers have to engage in a bit of armchair psychology to figure out the personalities of their staff, and Contreras has the advantage of having been in the Cubs organization for a long time and of having worked with most of the pitchers on the staff for years.
In Gomes’ case, he uses his experience as a batter to help him. Having faced many of the Cubs starters in the past, he knows a few things about them. In particular, Gomes takes who he has had an easy time against – he jokes that Drew Smyly and Wade Miley would prefer he not talk about the times they’ve faced each other – and talks to them about why. The reverse is true too. He is open with the pitchers who he struggled against about what they were doing well.
“Usually our main conversation is, ‘This is what made me uncomfortable when I was facing you. What do you think about it, is it something you like to do?’” Gomes said. “And usually that kind of stuff ends up leading to a decent conversation.”
Having Contreras and Gomes both on the roster has created the opportunity for Ross to use them both in his lineup a lot already this season. That has meant that Contreras can be the designated hitter, keeping his bat in the lineup while saving his legs.
Time off from catching is helping him as a hitter too, Contreras said. Because he can just focus on batting for some of his starts, he is getting the chance to think more about that aspect of his game.
The results have been good. Through 144 plate appearances, Contreras has an .840 OPS. That’s the highest he has posted since his All-Star season in 2019. He also has the lowest strikeout rate of his career (20.1%), his best walk rate (11.1%), and his hard-hit rate is nearly 10 percent higher than in 2021.
“It helps because I’m watching the game,” Contreras said of being DH. “I have more time to watch what the pitcher is doing. It’s different when I’m catching. When I’m catching, I have to deal with my pitcher.”
The looming trade deadline
The elephant in the room is that Contreras could very well not be in a Cubs uniform by August. Hoyer is careful not to tip his hand about what might happen and insists their relationship is good, but there have been no reported extension talks since the season started. Contreras says he is happy where he is now and enjoying the moment. But there’s a sense that the uncertainty about his future – especially with an organization that he’s been a part of since he was a 17-year-old in 2009 – is creating some frustration.
“I have done a lot for this team, and that is one thing that has helped me keep my head up,” Contreras said.
Whatever the future holds, the Cubs are benefiting as a team from the presence of both Gomes and Contreras. For now. If the latter is traded at the deadline, they will still have Gomes and there are guys in the system, like P.J. Higgins, who can step in.
Gomes is signed through at least next year, and there’s a $6 million dollar club option for 2024 that includes a $1 million buyout. If he is going to end up the de facto starter, the Cubs are still in sturdy hands.
“You hear great things, and then you get around him, and he’s a true professional,” Ross said of Gomes. “Comes to work every day to help us win. Helps us win in the dugout, helps us win in the clubhouse, and helps us win on the field. I can’t say enough good things about what he’s brought to our group.”
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