Willson Contreras has taken MLB by storm. It would be fair to say that if he could keep up the hitting pace of his first seven games (.412/.474/.941) that he would be the greatest player in the history of baseball. That won't happen, of course, but there are reasons to believe that Willson Contreras might just as good as any of the young studs the Cubs have assembled.
It goes beyond his short stint in MLB, of course. Let's begin with his performance for the past 1.5 years in minor league ball. Willson had his breakthrough year at AA in 2015, going .333/.413/.478 at the plate. More importantly, he showed tremendous plate discipline and contact skills with 10.9 BB % and 11.9 SO %. If you added in HBP, he got on base with free (and painful) passes more frequently than he struck out across 521 PA. He continued that excellence into the Arizona Fall League (where many of baseball's best prospects play when the regular minor league season concludes) with a .283/.361/.547 line and 11.5 BB % / 14.8 SO % peripherals.
In AAA this year, he took everything he had done last season and added a big boost of power into the mix. At the time of his promotion, he was hitting .350/.439/.591 with excellent peripherals, once again. The .100 point gain in his slugging over his AA numbers was driven by a steep increase in his HR rate. At AA he hit a home run every 56.75 AB. In AA, he hit a home run every 22.56 AB. If you include his time in the majors for his 2016 line, he is at a home run every 19.16 AB.
In the very, very small sample size of his time in the majors, he has already hit three home runs in 17 AB (1 every 5.67 AB). That really does not tell us very much yet as he won't be able to keep up that level of HR rate (I feel confident saying that because it would be the best ever!). But there are a number of things that we can already tell about the type of hitter he will be.
Let's start with some numbers around plate discipline. Here are Willson's swing percentages compared to the league average:
|O-Swing %||Z-Swing %||Swing %|
|Contreras||35.1 %||74.2 %||52.9 %|
|League Average||29.1 %||66.3 %||46.3 %|
Across the board, Willson has been a little more aggressive so far than the typical major leaguer. That matches up with what I have seen on the field so far. I would describe Willson's approach to the game as "barely restrained aggression". However, based on his minor league performance, I would actually expect these numbers to approach or exceed league average once he begins to feel more comfortable in MLB.
Now let's look at his contact rates:
|O-Contact %||Z-Contact %||Contact %|
|Contreras||46.2 %||87.0 %||72.2 %|
|League Average||63.1 %||86.1 %||78.3 %|
Those numbers are pretty good for a very tightly wound player making his big league debut. Willson has been taking some big hacks at the plate, as evidenced by his three home runs already. Making that level of contact while swinging that hard is very good.
Now let's look at his small sample results. I'm going to start with the thing that grabbed my attention the most:
Even with the big swings and the power that Contreras has shown so far, he has been almost purely an up the middle and opposite field hitter. The explanation for that shows in his zone charts:
The two charts on the left show the pitch location for every pitch he's been thrown to date. To begin his big league career, pitchers are making a significant effort to pitch him away. Willson has shown to be an adept enough hitter to both recognize that and then go with those pitches and punish them to the opposite field.
It will be fascinating to watch the adjustments over the next few weeks as teams realize that he's perfectly willing to hit those pitches on the outside to the opposite field. Teams will see the zero batting average on inside pitches (third chart above) and will start to try to bust him inside. Willson will have to recognize that and adjust to pull those pitches to have similar success. His minor league track record over the past year and a half suggest that he will most definitely be able to make that adjustment.