Wow! Talk about a headline, right? Needless to say there is a lot to cover here, so let’s get to it.
When Willson Contreras began raking last season like an all-world prospect it coincided with Kyle Schwarber being behind the plate at the exact same level(AA-TN). It created an interesting dynamic that I brought up a few times last season, only to be shot down.
While Schwarber was showing the leadership and intangibles that it takes to be a major league catcher(along with an elite left-handed bat), Contreras had the better defensive-skills at the position with a bat that was becoming growingly potent.
With that, the Cubs organization elected to start Schwarbs behind the plate and Contreras at 3b, being that Contreras was more of the athlete between the two and Kyles value at the time was seen to be tied to his ability to catch.
June hit and Schwarber came up for some coffee where he crushed his home-state Cleveland Indians in his debut, Contreras moved back behind the plate at AA where he would lead the affiliate league in hitting, and the rest is 2015 history.
Move forward to June 2016. We have an interesting dynamic setting up that may be a best-case scenario for both the Cubs’ catchers(players), and it’s eerily similar to a decade-long shift that has taken place in the NFL.
For so long franchises were insistent on placing boxes around positions and athletes. “A work-horse” running back in the NFL, a “prototypical” power forward in the NBA.
However, as more data has become available, organizations have become increasingly aware of the positives that come with removing those boxes and creating longevity and versatility with their best players. A stretch-4 in the NBA, a shoot-first point guard, and, more appropriately for this article, a time-share at running back.
The running back position in the NFL is one of the most physically grueling positions in all of sports. Each time a play is called for a running back they are tasked with running directly towards 11 players who are intent on running directly at them and hitting them as hard as they possibly can. It’s like a race car driver having their primary goal be to drive head on to another driver coming directly at them, with only minimal road blocks set up to help them avoid the contact. It’s not conducive for a running back to take that type of beating for 5 years and still be effective. Introduce “the running back timeshare.”
So what does this have to do with the Cubs and the catching dynamic? With Kyle and Willson? Simple.
The Cubs front office have been light years ahead of other front offices in terms of drafting, scouting and development of offensive players since taking over the organization. Now, they may be on the cusp of fostering a similar evolution of the catcher position in the MLB to that which has occurred in the NFL at the running back spot.
Two players with offensive skill sets capable of carrying a corner outfield position(which typically needs to be an above average bat to justify it), while having adequate enough defense behind the plate to support spending time at catcher as well. This gives the Cubs the unique opportunity to carry a 3rd catcher and do a 40/40/20 split between Willson, Kyle, and said 3rd string catcher.
First, I know what some will say, “Kyles not a catcher!” Well, the front office has been extremely transparent with the fanbase since the beginning and they’ve given every indication that Kyle will still be spending time at the catcher spot following his rehab. If we are to believe them then(and we should), I believe the Cubs are about to revolutionize the catching position.
For too long key offensive players have had to endure the grueling 162 game summer schedule that comes with 80-90 degree days predominantly behind the plate. This has led to MVPs suffering through injuries and general regressions that come with that wear and tear of that position(Joe Mauer, anyone?). Introduce, the timeshare.
Now first of all, this potential luxury is as much a happenstance situation more than an intentional thought process and scouting. Jim Hendry, of course, is responsible for bringing Contreras into the organization(though there’s no reason to believe that he would be where he is today with the underwhelming development process Hendry had in place throughout his time with the Cubs). However, now that the opportunity has presented itself I have a growing inclination that the Cubs are looking at this as a way to change the way the catcher position is filled.
If we are to assume the catcher position will see roughly 600 at bats in 2017(safe assumption), then I wouldn’t be surprised if those at-bats are comprised of 240 Contreras, 240 Schwarber, and 120 3rd string catcher which will give both Contreras and Schwarber ample days off along with plenty of time behind the plate and in LF.
On an innings basis that breaks down to about 583 innings at the catcher spot for both key players and 729 innings in LF(assuming each player plays about 90% of total innings available in 2017). They may be moved to other spots to facilitate days off for other regulars(1B comes to mind), but the concept is clear. Nearly each game you put out your best offensive lineup without grossly sacrificing any players long term health while providing more-than-adequate defensive lineups.
When you look at the running back timeshare, one the first that comes to mind for me is that of the “Thunder/Lightning” combo in New York with Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne. One could argue that it was an intentional concept the Giants put together, but I believe it was more of a matter of personnel and opportunity.
Following the success of that approach with the Giants, more and more teams began creating their own running back combos to help reduce the physical toll that the position takes while also maximizing the production from the running back position. It was a perfect blend.
The Cubs find themselves with the unique opportunity to revolutionize the catcher position in the same way in 2017. Whether by happenstance, development, or both(most likely), the Cubs have the personnel to reduce the heavy physical beating the traditional catcher position takes when gearing up day in and day out throughout the summer months, while also simultaneously maximizing the production that the catcher position is able to put out.
A “regular combo” of Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber would very likely be a top 2 or 3 WARP catcher position in all of baseball, and it would no doubt revolutionize the catcher position for years to come.