Chicago Cubs: The numbers behind Willson Contreras’ hot start

(Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)
(Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images) /

The Chicago Cubs offense has been clicking on all cylinders early in the season, and Willson Contreras’ strong start is a big reason why.

As a team, the Chicago Cubs may not have roared out of the gate in 2019, but some individual players have. None more so than Willson Contreras.

The 26-year-old catcher is in the first few weeks of his fourth season at the big league level, and he’s had an impressive showing thus far. Entering 2019, his career slash line of .266/.349/.450 has been good enough to give him a 116 wRC+, meaning he’s created runs at a rate that’s 16 percent higher than league average – that’s the fifth best mark of all catchers with 500 plate appearances from 2016-2018.

Contreras earned his first trip to the All-Star game last season, and it looks like he’s already making a push for that honor once again in 2019.

Through his first 14 games, Contreras has posted a .341/.471/.829 slash line and a 224 wRC+. That incredible wRC+ mark puts Contreras fourth among all MLB hitters this year, trailing only Mike Trout, Cody Bellinger, and Anthony Rendon. That’s pretty good company.

It’s easy to write off early season statistics as a factor of small sample size or a hot stretch that would go unnoticed if it occurred at any time besides the start of the season, but these numbers from Contreras don’t look like a blip on the radar.

There’s been one thing that’s hampered Contreras’ success at the plate through the first three years of his career – his tendency to hit the ball on the ground. In each of his first three seasons, Contreras had a groundball rate of over 50 percent. In 2017 and 2018, he had the 13th and 10th highest groundball rates in the league, respectively.

So far this year, Contreras’ batted ball profile is telling a different story.

Contreras has dropped his groundball rate over 10 percent, and it looks like it’s primarily due to raising his launch angle. According to Statcast data available on, Contreras has raised his average launch angle from 6.8 last year to 9.9 this year.

In addition to hitting the ball in the air more, Contreras is also making much better contact. His average exit velocity is up to 89.5 mph from the 87 mph he posted in 2018. He’s also gotten the barrel of the bat on the ball much more often. In 2018 he barreled 7.3 percent of pitches he hit. That rate has nearly tripled to 21.4 percent in 2019, placing him in the top three percent of hitters for barrel rate.

So Contreras is hitting the ball in the air more often as well as making harder contact. He hasn’t mentioned any specific changes to his approach, batting stance, or swing this year, so how have these underlying statistics gotten so much better?

Here’s a good theory.

Whatever the change is that Contreras has made, it’s produced an incredible result. He’s put up 1.0 fWAR in his first 51 plate appearances. That’s already more fWAR than he generated during the entire 2018 campaign.

Next. Willson Contreras' fast start is encouraging. dark

Contreras’ impressive early season results aren’t just a flash in the pan. His peripheral numbers show that his success so far is sustainable going forward. Look out MLB — the best catcher in the game may be on Chicago’s North Side.