Willson Contreras lays down the truth on his 2018 season: ‘I didn't deserve to have a good year'


Willson Contreras entered 2018 with 40/1 odds of winning the National League MVP.

There was talk — including some of his own words — he could step up as the greatest catcher on the planet right now.

He was also Joe Maddon's clear choice to be the Cubs' cleanup hitter to begin the year, providing protection in the lineup to Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

Yet he ended the season with an OPS 125 points below his 2017 mark and managed only 10 homers and 54 RBI in 474 at-bats a year after he clubbed 21 dingers and drove in 74 runs in 377 at-bats.

So what happened? 

The energetic 26-year-old catcher was brutally honest in talking about his game in a sitdown interview with NBC Sports Chicago's Kelly Crull early in spring training.

Contreras admitted he slacked off on his pregame routine as the year went on.

"I used to get to the ballpark, like I did in 2017, and I'd usually get on the elliptical or bike or stretch or lift," Contreras said. "To be honest, I didn't lift at all [as 2018 went on]. I came out of my routine completely. I didn't deserve to have a good year last year. That's what I told myself. I've learned from it, I took it as inspiration and now I'm here."

Contreras actually began the year pretty well, hitting .279 with an .818 OPS and 31 extra-base hits (including 7 homers) in the first half. That was enough to earn him a trip to the All-Star Game as the National League starter, where he homered in his first at-bat off Chris Sale.

Things cratered from there, as he hit just .200 with a .585 OPS in the second half, with only 11 extra-base hits in 56 games.

Many have wondered if Contreras simply wore down physically because he was playing too much and didn't get enough rest. He caught more innings than anybody in baseball last year.

But he insists that wasn't the issue and didn't have any injuries last year that contributed to his downturn.

Contreras believes he simply got complacent.

"Everything is easy when you're going well, when you're not thinking too much and hitting homers and doubles with guys in scoring position," he said. "I was too comfortable last year, to be honest. It kills me — I was like way too comfortable. I talked to my family and my wife about this.

"I didn't do my best on my routine because the season before, I hit 21 homers and I told myself, 'OK, if you hit 21 homers one year, you can do it again next year.' But it doesn't work like that.

"This game taught me that you have to keep working hard like you did the last year and don't get too comfortable because you're gonna fail and fail and fail. We learn and we move on."

The day the Cubs' season ended last fall, players talked about how the group may have gotten complacent at various points throughout the year — a point Theo Epstein emphasized in his season eulogy the following day.

Contreras really owned up to that on his end and a few weeks after the Cubs were knocked out of the playoffs, he got back to work. He knows working out and being in great shape doesn't guarantee him a good season in 2019 and he also understands he has work to do on the mental aspect of the game.

Maddon has preached to Contreras to "get back in the huddle" and bounce back after a bad moment instead of beating himself up about each little failure. 

"I tell him — and I mean it — he's the best talent there is out there at that particular position," Maddon said. "In 2017, the second half, before he got hurt, he was showing that. He absolutely was showing that. Then he becomes the All-Star National League catcher. The second half of last year was the anomaly moment that I really don't think you saw a great representation of him or anywhere near what he is. 

"We gotta get beyond that and I think we will. But it's the controlling of emotions and getting back into the huddle or moving on to the next play without having the previous play impacted."

One of Contreras' main goals for 2019 is to have more fun with the game. He believes he now has a better understanding that baseball is a game fraught with failure and wants to model his approach more like Ben Zobrist. The Cubs catcher admires the way the veteran goes about his business each day, regardless of his outing the night before.

Contreras also admitted he maybe got too caught up in his work as a catcher — defensively as well as calling a game and working with the pitching staff. 

"I know that I can be better," he said. "I know what I'm capable of on the field and off the field. I always reflect on myself — what did I do today? How much effort did I give on the game? How much effort did I give defensively? 

"I was so focused on my defense that I got too comfortable on the other side. It's a balance. You have to put the weight evenly and you have to worry about both sides."

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