The Cubs are sitting at .500 heading into their series against the last-place Cardinals, who come to town having finally won a game after dropping eight straight. St. Louis made waves over the weekend when they moved Willson Contreras from behind the dish into what could be at least a temporary DH/left field role. The former Cub has doubled and tripled down on the rhetoric about wanting to be a Cardinal, but he doesn’t seem to have been as diligent in his preparation behind the plate.
“I wouldn’t say pregame prep as much as…that would be a simplification of it,” Cards manager Oli Marmol told MLB.com’s John Denton. There’s real work to be done. The way I would describe it is truly understanding our internal system of executing the game plan for each individual pitcher. The reality is, it’s more than he’s ever had to do. Nothing against the way he’s done it, but it’s very different and it’s a lot of work.”
Marmol may be throwing a tacit jab at the Cubs, though this is also a matter of the Cardinals’ own internal confusion over pitching strategy and their new catcher’s laissez-faire attitude to game management. And lest you believe I’m just trying to put Contreras on blast just because I’m salty over the way he’s spoken since leaving Chicago, let’s let him tell us in his own words.
“People don’t really know what happened there,” Contreras told Ken Rosenthal back in February. “I had to adjust to the (pitchers). I didn’t want them to do whatever I thought was right. I had to let them be themselves. I didn’t want to be a dictator, tell them what to do. A lot of times, I’d rather them figure out things by themselves…
“I watch video. I watch a lot of video. When I go home, I write stuff down, which I don’t show to the team, because I don’t have to show what I do. I just have to show what I do on the field.”
So the Cardinals replaced Yadier Molina, a man who took a leave of absence to cheer on the basketball team he owns in Puerto Rico, with a catcher who doesn’t share the stuff he writes down and who just lets young pitchers figure things out for themselves. And you wonder why Cubs pitchers’ ERAs were better last season when Yan Gomes was behind the plate.
I was reminded of those comments for Contreras when seeing how Hayden Wesneski gushed about working with Miguel Amaya on Sunday afternoon. The righty went six innings and allowed just one run on a solo homer while striking out six with no walks. It’d be one thing if this was just a matter of Wesneski shoving, but he’s been all over the place in terms of the feel for his repertoire this season and Amaya was making just his third MLB start and first in a battery with the young starter.
“I was very surprised [by] how prepared he is,” Wesneski said, per CHGO’s Ryan Herrera. “It’s incredible. I’ll even say, the first inning or to, it was like, he’s a young guy, you’re not sure what you’re going to get when you call a game. And so I kind of started [second] guessing him and myself. Then I could in the dugout, I’m like, ‘You know what? I’m trusting you. You have called the right pitches so far, in my opinion, and I’ve been really hard-headed about it.’
“And so, about the third inning, I started trusting him and you see where that got us. I’m telling you right now, that guy, he’s very prepared, he’s very mature, and I’m impressed with his game-calling because that’s one thing that’s really tough moving up through the ranks. It’s not necessarily the framing and the blocking, he’s playing the game. I actually blew my mind today. I tried to be overly prepared today thinking that I didn’t know how prepared he was going to be, and, dude, he was more prepared than I was.”
I’d say that sounds like a man who was making a tacit comparison to his former teammate, but Wesneski never worked with Contreras in any of his six appearances last season. In fact, the three-time All-Star catcher was only in the lineup for one Wesneski outing, and it was as a DH. Based on what Contreras told Rosenthal, it’s no wonder the Cubs opted for either Yan Gomes or PJ Higgins each time.
Now that sufficient shade has been thrown, let’s get back to shining a light on Amaya before closing this out. While the bat has been playing nicely this season, this is a young man who’s always been mature beyond his years as a catcher. Wesneski’s comments echo those of the man for whom he was traded, former Cub Scott Effross.
When Effross was adjusting to his new arm slot in the Arizona Fall League in 2019, he was wowed by Amaya’s game management.
“It’s unbelievable, he catches like he’s been catching for 10 years in professional baseball,” Effross marveled. “He’s so confident back there, and he honestly thinks a little bit better than I do about all this because he pays attention.
“With the new mechanics, new pitches, I don’t know exactly what I’m doing. I’m kind of just going out there and throwing and working on stuff, but he’s — in Myrtle Beach specifically — he would always set up hitters so well.”
This is the kind of stuff that won’t show up in even the most advanced metrics, but pitchers will end up getting better results due to the confidence they’ve got in their partner behind the plate. Amaya may still need a little seasoning at Double- and Triple-A once Gomes returns from the concussion IL, but it’s becoming clearer all the time that the Cubs have their catcher of the future waiting in the wings.