Cubs catcher Willson Contreras stood in the hallway of the Truist Park visiting clubhouse in Atlanta, his whole body engaged in an earnest conversation with left-hander Justin Steele. The young starter smiled as Contreras told him that a guy with his stuff didn’t need to rush.
“One example that I pulled out was Jonny Lester pitching,” Contreras told the Sun-Times, referencing the former Cubs ace. “And he never rushed. He just made sure he executed as many pitches as he could.”
As a catcher, and one of three remaining players from the 2016 World Series team, part of Contreras’ job description is helping the Cubs get the most out of their pitching staff. And the club needs strong performances from young pitchers to compete this year and build that “next great Cubs team,” president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer keeps talking about.
Of course, there’s a whole team of coaches, led by pitching coach Tommy Hottovy, whose main focus is drawing out the best version of each pitcher on the roster. But in-game, when Contreras is behind the dish, he’s the pitcher’s best resource from pitch to pitch.
“He just really knows what to say when, when to push a guy, when to take him to the side,” said veteran Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks, who has witnessed Contreras’ development from rookie to established catcher. “He’s really good on that vocal aspect. I think he’s learned from a lot of the other veterans that we’ve had in the past, that we’ve had around here. But he’s been amazing for the guys.”
Passion is a hallmark of Contreras’ play, an attribute that translates over the broadcast feed and can be spotted from the upper deck at Wrigley Field. It’s helped make him a two-time All-Star who is expected to be the best all-around catcher in the next free agent class if he and the Cubs – or any club the Cubs might trade him to at the deadline – don’t agree on an extension.
Contreras’ experience and intensity also fuel his influence with young pitchers. He has the power to fire up or deflate, a heavy responsibility.
“Be vocal whenever I need to be vocal,” Contreras said of his approach. “But I want to be a leader for my pitchers, teach them the right way, let them know whenever they’re doing something off, or whenever they get stubborn, I’ll be honest. But I think the communication between the pitchers and I is really clean.”
Contreras’ relationship with some of the Cubs’ young pitchers goes back to before their major-league debuts. Contreras has known Steele for years, through right-hander Adbert Alzolay. Contreras got to know rookie Ethan Roberts when the catcher was on a rehab assignment in Triple-A late last season.
Before he left the Iowa Cubs, Contreras told Roberts he’d be on the 40-man roster by the offseason, and the catcher would see him in Spring Training. Roberts brushed off the compliment, but Contreras proved to be right.
In the spring, Contreras doubled down and told Roberts he’d make the Opening Day roster. Contreras was right about that too.
“His opinion weighs a lot on a young guy like me,” Roberts said. “That was very important to me that he said that and very special. … He had confidence, and he knew exactly what he’s talking about.”
The Cubs have a handful of young pitchers in prominent roles, or waiting in the wings like Alzolay, who is on the 60-day injured list with a right shoulder strain.
The Cubs placed Roberts (right shoulder inflammation) on the 10-day IL this weekend, helping to bring the Cubs’ active roster down to 26 players as April roster expansion ended Monday. But Keegan Thompson has been a bright spot for the 9-13 Cubs so far, posting a 0.54 ERA in a multi-inning reliever role. And Steele is the youngest member of the Cubs’ rotation, in his second MLB season.
As Steele works to reclaim the standard he set for himself in a couple strong starts to begin the year, he’ll have Contreras behind the plate and in the clubhouse reminding him that his stuff plays in the strike zone.
“We’ve been pretty good friends for a pretty good while now,” Steele said, “and he knows exactly how to approach me, how to talk to me and stuff, which is good to have that relationship with a catcher.”