More than any other player on the Cubs roster, Willson Contreras is known for wearing his heart on his sleeve when he plays. He even did so literally for a while until the killjoys at MLB shut down his use of a Venezuelan flag compression sleeve. In any case, there’s reason to wonder whether and how a player who seems to thrive on the energy of a crowd is going to fare when manufactured cheers reverberate off of empty seats.
“It will be hard, because we’re used to playing with fans,” Contreras told members of the media via Zoom on Monday. “But, I will have the same mindset going forward, going into the games. I’ve got to think that there’s fans watching me from home. I know it’s different, but they’re still watching, they’re still looking at us like heroes. And I’ll be doing 110 percent to have fun.”
That might sound like a trite response coming from anyone else, but Contreras has been pretty open in the past about trying to make the most of his time on the field. Prior to spring training last year, he openly admitted that he’d cut back on his pregame workouts and didn’t lift at all during the 2018 season. That led to his performance falling off a cliff, which in turn meant he wasn’t enjoying himself as much as he usually did.
“I’m looking forward to having a great season in 2019,” he said. “When the 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.”
As much as he loves to catch, it’s possible that Victor Caratini’s emergence and having the DH in play will allow Contreras to have a little more fun on the whole this season. After all, getting as many plate appearances as possible and slapping dingers with greater frequency is what the kids would call fun AF. At the same time, things could get a little dicey if Contreras isn’t on board with the strategy moving forward.
He appears to be fully bought in, however, even standing in for David Ross to explain some of the battery options while the manager was out awaiting the results of his latest COVID test.
“Victor is catching Darvish, because there’s only 60 games and Darvish did really well with Victor last year,” Contreras announced. “That’s one thing that I don’t mind. I think they did really good and I think I put myself in that situation when I started catching Lester. So it’s the same situation. I’m not mad. We are teammates. We want to do really good and we’re here to win. That’s the most important thing.”
Another way to put it is that if it ain’t broke, Vic’s it. Caratini did a good job of catching Yu Darvish last season and is widely believed to be a better framer than Contreras, something that could factor when trying to handle 11 different pitches. And though some may discount the the value of comfort and rapport, the Cubs are looking to leverage every possible competitive advantage they can find.
Hottovy on partnerships (Darvish-Caratini, Lester-Contreras): "We're going to try to hit the ground running" and have those partnerships solidifying.
— Mark Gonzales (@MDGonzales) July 13, 2020
Pitching coach Tommy Hottovy talked about trying to “hit the ground running” with the partnerships between particular pitchers and catchers, so keeping familiar batteries together makes sense. There’s also something to be said for having the team aligned on a bigger scale, specifically in regard to their collective respect for and adherence to league-mandated health protocols.
Hottovy has shared his own struggles with COVID-19 and his pitching staff saw how bad he had it, but he said it has also opened up conversations with position players. The Cubs are the only team MLB team yet to report a positive result from a Tier 1 employee since arriving at camp and they seem to be very committed to keeping it that way. Yu Darvish noted that recently, saying he was fully ready to opt out of the season if he didn’t feel his teammates were taking things seriously.
Contreras likewise indicated that he feels safer at Wrigley Field, where he can trust those around him look out for the health of those around them. That’s not necessarily the case once he leaves the Friendly Confines, as he expressed Monday.
"Every time that I come to the ballpark, I feel good, I feel safe in here," Willson Contreras said.
The Cubs catcher said he feels more concern about COVID-19 when he walks down the street. Inside Wrigley, feels Cubs and teammates have done a great job creating safe environment.
— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) July 13, 2020
Huh, maybe not having fans around will actually end up being better for Contreras and other players after all.