PHOENIX — Over the course of the past seven years, David Ross has watched Willson Contreras grow from being a raw rookie to an All-Star to an experienced veteran. Ross has known the catcher as a teammate and learned what makes him tick as his manager now.
That made what Ross said earlier this weekend carry weight.
“This is as good as I think I may have ever seen Willson,” Ross said.
In a 4-2 win over the D-backs on Saturday at Chase Field, Contreras helped spark a three-run rally in the ninth with a leadoff walk. He has been on an offensive tear, while doing his part to tune out the noise about his contract status or future with the Cubs.
“He’s been playing great,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “His offensive game is as strong as I’ve seen him.”
Here have been three keys to Contreras’ season so far:
1. Ignoring distractions
Last season, Contreras saw how some of his teammates handled the situation he currently finds himself in. Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo were in the last year of their contracts, extension talks stalled and trade chatter went from rumors to reality.
Contreras heard a lot of conversations about those topics behind the scenes.
“I realized that that was something I didn’t want to do,” he said. “I didn’t want my team to lose focus of winning games or playing the game hard. I don’t want different people to be bothered by my personal stuff. That’s something personal. Nobody needs to hear what I think, needs to know what my thoughts are. But I’m glad that I watched them go through it. I learned from it.”
Contreras’ name will surely come up more often when the Aug. 2 Trade Deadline approaches, especially with no apparent movement in extension talks. He also has the added distraction of an in-season arbitration hearing (slated for June 9) due to the lockout altering baseball’s schedule.
“Everyone kind of deals with that differently,” said Hoyer, referring to off-field matters. “For some guys, I think it does become a topic of conversation. I haven’t heard him. Inside, he hasn’t been talking about it.”
2. Adjustments in approach
As the calendar flipped to May, Contreras decided he had to make some alterations to his approach in the batter’s box. The catcher began to focus more on making contact and allowing himself to look to the opposite field more for hits.
“I would say staying small at the plate,” Contreras said of his strategy over the last few weeks. “Not trying to hit a homer or two in a game. I’m trying just to put the barrel on the ball and see what happens.”
Even without a hit in Saturday’s win, Contreras kept his contact rate this season at 73.9 percent, which is a career best. He is currently sporting a 19.7 percent strikeout rate — down from 28.6 percent last year and 24.3 percent for his career. It has helped Contreras boost his season line to .286/.402/.490, following a respectable .250/.354/.426 slash in April.
On top of that, Contreras has posted an average exit velocity of 93.9 mph with a 61.3 percent hard-hit rate, per Statcast. Both marks are in the 98-99th percentile. He has also gone to the opposite field 37.3 percent of the time, compared to 25.1 percent last year.
“What brought me to the big leagues was to make contact to the opposite way,” Contreras said. “I did it in Double-A. I did it in Triple-A. And that’s what brought me to the big leagues. That’s what makes me a better hitter. And that’s something that I’m really trying to do from Day 1 of May. And it’s been working.”
Contreras has admitted that last year was both physically and mentally draining, given the high turnover in the backup catching role. It forced Ross to lean heavily on Contreras, who dealt with injury setbacks late in the schedule.
The arrival of the designated hitter to the National League, plus the signing of veteran backstop Yan Gomes, has been a boon for Contreras on multiple fronts. He knows there will be chances to stay in the lineup when he isn’t catching, and trusts Gomes can handle the staff.
“I’m glad we have Yan Gomes with us. He’s a really hard worker,” Contreras said. “And having him healthy helps me to keep my legs fresh, my body fresh. And it also helps him, too. Mentally, it’s really important, because whenever he’s catching, I can just relax a little more.”
Case in point: Contreras served as the leadoff hitter and DH on Saturday, with Gomes catching and batting cleanup. Gomes put Chicago on the board with a homer in the fourth. In the ninth, he delivered an RBI single that scored Contreras, who led off with a walk against D-backs closer Mark Melancon.
“Willson’s been the catalyst for us the last week,” Ross said. “When he has quality at-bats, good things happen for us.”