By César Augusto Márquez
Willson Contreras still feels pain after a long game. It has been six years since he made the transition that took him from third base to behind the plate. In that span there have been many important events in his professional career.
He was called up to the big leagues, won a World Series, and earned an All-Star Game berth.
“I did not start as a catcher,” he said. “When they signed me in Venezuela, they saw me as a third baseman for the ability I had to produce offensively and for the arm I showed. My body was used to that.”
The position change meant that the Venezuelan would have to become accustomed to the physical toll of being a catcher.
“When I became a catcher, the work was quite different,” he said. “At first my body ached from always crouching. I think it still hurts, especially the next day after a long game.”
An Unplanned Conversion
His switch to catcher happened unintentionally. In the Instructional League during the fall of 2011, Contreras began to joke around by positioning himself behind home plate. His antics caught the attention of then Cubs vice president of player personnel Oneri Fleita, who called him over to make a proposal.
“For me it was a joke,” he said. “Only when Mr. Fleita called me to his office and told me that he thought that I could get to the majors more quickly as a catcher that I took on the challenge. I think that is the best decision I have made.
“It wasn’t easy, especially because at first it hurt. My body didn’t adapt well to the change. But I think things could not have turned out better if I hadn’t made the decision to put on the mask and catcher’s equipment.”
The hiring of Tim Cossins in 2012 as the Cubs’ coordinator of minor league catchers and infielders was important for Contreras to make that change.
“At that time I did not have the tutelage of a veteran catcher in the organization,” he said. “However, Cossins, who had just started working with the team, worked with me and was the one who helped me make that change.”
Miguel Montero, the former Cubs catcher who held the starting position until Contreras’ promotion, has been impressed by what he has seen in his fellow Venezuelan’s development.
“He is a player who has grown a lot since he started his career and has everything needed to be in the game for many years,” Montero said.
Hender Martinez, the man who prepared Contreras to sign when he was a prospect, was not surprised that his pupil was successful in making the transition.
“When we prepared him, we observed many skills that have helped him in his career. But I think that the fact that he is a worker like few others served him well in becoming a star at such an early age in such a demanding position,” Martinez told La Vida Baseball in Spanish.
Land of Catchers
Contreras was born in Puerto Cabello, a coastal city west of the state of Carabobo, the state that also produced All-Star catchers Salvador Pérez and Wilson Ramos.
The three Venezuelan catchers from Puerto Cabello actually had a reunion in Washington, D.C., at this year’s All-Star Game. That reunion helped Contreras to reflect on both their influence and how far he has come as a catcher.
“It is a source of pride for me that there are Venezuelan catchers among the best in the position,” he said. “I have learned a lot from both and hope to continue doing so.
“For me it was beautiful when the three of us were selected for the All-Star Game. Unfortunately, Wilson (Ramos) could not play, but Salvador and I were able to make history.”
According to Baseball Reference, Contreras ranks second among catchers in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in the major leagues. Although he’s been struggling at the plate since the All-Star Game, he still has a 3.1 WAR, which trails only the Miami Marlins’ JT Realmuto (4.2) among big league backstops.
“For me, it will not stop being a source of pride to be on a list with the big names,” he said. “As I have always maintained, I want to continue learning from the many people that play my position and at some point to be as good as them.”
From the various important moments in his budding career, Contreras does not hesitate to select two as the most meaningful.
“The home run I hit in the All-Star Game was very important,” he said, “but I think that I would have stick with the one I hit in the first game of my career and, above all else, having won the World Series, which is always the team goal.”
Featured Image: Denis Poroy / Getty Images Sport