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The Cubs’ new catching coach has a record of success.
Willson Contreras is undoubtedly one of the best hitting catchers in baseball. Since 2016, only two catchers with at least 1,500 plate appearances have posted a higher wRC+ than Contreras’s 117 mark: Gary Sánchez and Yasmani Grandal. Contreras’s only problem is that he’s one of the worst framers in baseball. In that same time, Contreras has been the second-worst receiver in the majors according to FanGraphs’ framing metrics.
Contreras has coughed up 33.7 runs behind the plate in his career, and in 2019, only James McCann and Omar Narvaez were less effective at stealing strikes. To rectify this problem, the Cubs have hired Craig Driver to be their first base and catching coach.
Though Driver never played professional baseball, he has quickly worked his way up to coaching in the big leagues. Driver coached at the collegiate level from 2012 to 2017 before making the jump to MLB. From 2018-2019, Driver was the bullpen catcher and receiving coach for the Philadelphia Phillies where he helped transform Jorge Alfaro and then J.T. Realmuto.
Sooooo interesting framing tidbit:
2018 JT Realmuto (without Driver): -.4 runs
2019 JT Realmuto (with Driver): +10.5 runs
2018 Jorge Alfaro (with Driver): +12.3 runs
2019 Jorge Alfaro (without Driver): -1.7 runs
— FullCountTommy (@FullCountTommy) December 1, 2019
When Alfaro was with the Phillies, he and Driver went through pregame framing practice and had weekly check-ins on what Alfaro was doing well and what he needed to improve on. That Alfaro took a step back as a framer during his time with the Marlins suggests that this constant attention was the catalyst for Alfaro’s improvement. Realmuto also had his best season under Driver’s coaching.
Framing can vary year-to-year, and a catcher also depends on the pitcher’s command to an extent. Pitchers with better command make it easier for a catcher to steal strikes. If the catcher has to reach across the strike zone, it doesn’t matter how well they receive it depending on who is calling balls and strikes. Baseball Prospectus’s CSAA for pitchers is a proxy for command and it removes a catcher’s influence. As a team in 2019, the Phillies pitching staff had much better command than the Marlins though the reverse was true in 2018.
Realmuto was also improving on his own prior to joining the Phillies. In 2015 and 2016 he posted -16.4 framing runs by FanGraphs’ measure, but he put up 6.4 in 2017 and 1.0 in 2018. Driver, then, isn’t a magic wand that teams can wave over a catcher and turn them into Roberto Pérez or Austin Hedges.
Framing, though, is a learned skill, and it’s the thing catchers can most reliably improve in a short amount of time. It’s tough to make an arm stronger or more accurate or to become a better hitter because a player is limited by their physical ability in those areas. Framing is dependent on several physical factors including hand eye coordination and hand and wrist strength, but mostly it relies more on technique, so it’s easier to improve. Tyler Flowers is an example of a catcher who became an elite framer by watching video of other players and changing how he set up on certain pitches.
Ultimately, it’s up to Contreras how much he improves at framing. He needs to buy in and internalize the coaching to see any on-field gains. Contreras is already one of the better catchers in baseball, though. If he can even be competent at framing, he could slide into a tier with J.T. Realmuto and Yasmani Grandal.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.