Should We Be Concerned About Willson Contreras’s Workload?

Willson Contreras caught all 15 innings of the Cubs’ marathon victory Saturday, leaving many to question the wisdom of running him right back out there on a chilly Sunday evening. Joe Maddon obviously couldn’t have envisioned that scenario when setting his lineups for the series, but we’ve already seen that he’s willing to adjust on the fly should the situation dictate it.

Of course, the situation in this case was a chance to earn their eighth consecutive series win while gaining another game in the division over the Brewers. While it was far from a must-win game, it held greater importance than a typical mid-May affair. With Monday off and a trip to Cincinnati following, there’d be time to rest the starting catcher in the future.

Though he was 0-for-4 with a strikeout, Contreras was solid behind the plate in Jon Lester‘s masterful effort and showed no ill effects of the previous night’s efforts. Nor has a heavy workload taken a toll on his offense, which is better than ever. But can he maintain his performance at the plate while continuing to be a workhorse behind it, something he clearly was unable to do last season?

Because that’s definitely going to be an issue if Maddon sticks with his current usage. Through 38 team games, Contreras has started 32 (84.2%) and has appeared in 35 (92.1%). That’s well ahead of last year’s pace for starts (75.9%) and appearances (82.1%) and has WillCo on track to catch over 1,257 innings. For reference, he caught just shy of 1,110 last season when he tailed off badly.

Is that reason enough to worry about his heavy playing time? Hell to the yeah. But there is also evidence to suggest that we temper our more drastic concerns.

First is Contreras’s offensive performance to this point in the season, which is significantly better than his All-Star-worthy work last year. Through 38 team games in 2018, he was slashing .273/.347/.500 with a .360 wOBA, 126 wRC+, and four home runs. As of that same mark this season, the dynamic catcher has a .304/.417/.617 slash with a .428 wOBA, 170 wRC+, and as many homers (10) as he had all of last season.

I don’t mean to suggest that starting out better means he won’t fall off just as hard, though it stands to reason that his offensive improvements — whether self-induced or the result of a coaching change — are relatively sustainable. Catchers are expected to taper off as the summer heats up and drags on, which means playing time can be dialed back moving forward.

Getting Victor Caratini back soon — he’s already rehabbing with Triple-A Iowa after five games with Low-A South Bend following hamate surgery less than a month ago — should help with that. Maddon can also move Contreras around the diamond as other players need rest or use him as the DH when the Cubs travel to AL ballparks (like Houston later this month). But the greatest source of belief that he can remain productive throughout the season lies with Contreras himself.

“I used to get to the ballpark, like I did in 2017, and I’d usually get on the elliptical or bike or stretch or lift,” the catcher admitted to NBC Sports Chicago back in mid-March. “To be honest, I didn’t lift at all [during the 2018 season]. I came out of my routine completely. I didn’t deserve to have a good year last year. That’s what I told myself. I’ve learned from it, I took it as inspiration and now I’m here.”

Because my undying affinity for training montages in Rocky movies, including my weekend viewing of both Creed and Creed II, I can tell you that you really need to work hard to get what you want. And as important as it is to get adequate rest, falling out of proper cardio and strength conditioning routines leaves an athlete far more susceptible to wearing down over the season.

And there’s this weird thing about working hard at your craft, whether it’s athletics or art or whatever: You actually end up having more fun. Winning is fun, being good at something is fun. Well, usually. And since last year wasn’t very fun for Contreras, he set out to change that.

“I’m looking forward to having a great season in 2019,” he said. “When [last] season was over, I reflect on my season, I think one of the main things that came to my mind was how much fun did I have last year. And it wasn’t enough.

“So this year, I’m gonna be having fun all around the ballpark. Even on and off the field, I have to be myself. So have fun this season.”

Sounds simple enough: Keep up the cardio and have more fun. Boom, done. Except it’s foolish to expect this early production to continue throughout the entire season, especially given current current workload trends. It’s even more foolish to expect folks not to worry about it.

That said, you probably shouldn’t be worried about it. Unless, you know, that’s your jam and it’s the way you prefer to fan. Even the most objective observer can find plenty about which to be concerned. But we can also see plenty more about which to be hopeful, so I guess we just have to let it play out and see what happens come late July or so.

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