On Sunday afternoon, the results of weeks of fan voting were reveled as the 2018 MLB All-Stars were announced. Despite trailing for much of the voting, Willson Contreras and Javier Baez were selected by the fans to start at the catcher position and second base position respectively.
In addition to those two starters, Jon Lester was named to the National League pitching staff, the fifth All-Star selection of his career.
All three of these players are in the midst of solid campaigns that left little doubt as to their worthiness of earning this honor.
Let’s dive deeper into what made these three Cubs All-Star-caliber players in 2018, starting with the first timers.
Contreras is in the middle of his second full big league season after spending seven and a half years in the Cubs’ minor league system. A career that started with a bang (Contreras hit a home run in his first major league at-bat), has blossomed into one that has propelled the 26-year-old to make his first All-Star Game appearance.
In 283 plate appearances during his 2016 rookie campaign, Contreras mashed 12 home runs and logged 35 RBI while amassing a 2.2 WAR. That mark was fueled by a .282/.357/.488 slash line, 125 wRC+ and stellar defense.
After posting a 23.7 percent strikeout rate that season, Contreras lowered that number to 22.9 percent during his first full big league season in 2017. In addition, the back-stop increased his walk rate 1.3 percent from 2016, posting a 10.5 percent mark. To go along with that, Contreras logged a .356 OBP to accompany his .499 slugging percentage and .223 ISO. Those numbers produced 21 home runs and 74 RBI, making Contreras a three-plus win player.
This season, Contreras has once again cut into his strikeout rate as it currently sits at 19.3 percent. Despite that, the youngster has taken a step back in the free pass department, posting a solid but lower than less year mark of 9.6 percent.
Even though the walks are down, Contreras is still enjoying his best offensive season to date. His .287/.372/.466 slash line has only produced seven home runs but he’s sitting at 34 RBI with a 126 wRC+.
Contreras’ lack of power means the back-stop has amassed an ISO of .182 so far this season. Despite that, the youngster is making up for that by increasing his contact rate and putting more balls in play. After posting contact rates in the low-70’s during his first two seasons, Contreras’ contact rate currently sits at 77 percent, while his Z-contact percentage (percentage of times a batter makes contact with the ball when in the strike zone) has increased almost 10 percentage points from 2016 and sits at 85 percent.
Overall, Contreras is enjoying a solid offensive campaign while providing stellar defense behind the plate (.990 fielding percentage in 619 innings). That has made him worth 2.5 wins already this season and propelled the youngster to get the nod in his first All-Star Game.
Baez has been one of the most polarizing players in the game this season. The 25-year-old’s instincts for the game make him a must watch anytime he is in the lineup. Whether he’s stealing home or making a slick fielding play look easy, Baez does it with a swagger that few can match.
On Sunday, Baez was rewarded with his first All-Star Game selection, beating out Atlanta Braves’ Ozzie Albies for the starting job. Looking at the numbers and it’s clear that Baez deserved a chance to showcase his talents in Washington.
After posting an absurd 41.5 percent strikeout rate during the 2014 season, Baez has been able to cut that number down almost every year. In 2016, it dipped to 24 percent before creeping back up to 28.3 percent in 2017. This year, Baez has a chance to push that number below 24 percent for the first time in his career. Currently, he’s sporting a 24.2 percent mark, but from late-March through the end of May, that number was south of 24 percent.
Baez has ridden that dip in strikeouts to post a breakout offensive campaign at this point in the season. After another multi-hit game on Sunday evening, Baez is slashing .295/.328/.565 with 17 home runs, 65 RBI and 16 stolen bases. To go along with that, Baez owns a .270 ISO, driven by the aforementioned 17 long balls. However, Baez’s home runs do not solely make up that number. The youngster has amassed 22 doubles in 335 plate appearances to go along with six triples.
Those numbers have helped to produce a 132 wRC+, a number that would set a career-high by 34 points if it holds. In addition, Baez has already amassed a 3.1 WAR, higher than any mark he’s posted since breaking into the majors.
On the defensive side of the ball, Baez actually rates slightly below average, saving negative-three runs defensively between second base, shortstop and third base. Despite what the metrics say, the eye test says that Baez is an elite defender as he is able to make plays that others are simply not able to.
Lester has been getting the job done on the mound since the 2006 season. Since then, the 34-year-old veteran has earned the “work horse” title, racking up five consecutive 200-plus inning seasons from 2012 to 2016.
It was during that 2016 season that Lester came the closest he ever has to winning a Cy Young award. The southpaw posted a 19-5 record and 2.44 ERA in 202.2 innings just to finish second to Max Scherzer. Nonetheless, Lester was a huge part of the Cubs’ World Series run in 2016, one of the driving factors behind the front office shelling out $155 million to the left-hander prior to the 2015 season.
After suffering through a clunker of a 2017 season in which he posted a 4.33 ERA, Lester has bounced back nicely to kick-off the second half of his six-year deal.
Despite allowing four earned runs over 6.1 innings on Sunday, Lester is sporting a 2.45 ERA, a shade off of the aforementioned mark he posted in 2016. Despite that, that is where the similarities to the 2016 season stop. During that Cy Young-caliber season, Lester averaged better than 8.5 strikeouts per nine and less than 2.5 walks per nine. This season, Lester’s strikeouts per nine have dipped to less than 7.2 while his walks per nine are above three for the first time since 2011.
Those numbers combined with his 4.28 FIP have not stopped Lester from posting a 186 ERA-plus while at the same time holding opposing hitters to a batting average south of .220.
For the first time since the 2013 season, Lester’s strikeout rate is below 20 percent. That, combined with his well-below career average 39 percent ground ball rate, means that a lot more balls are getting put in play with more of them getting airborne. Despite that, the Cubs’ defense has been able to combat those issues, helping to make Lester a five-time All-Star.
You can watch these Cubs and all the other All-Stars in action on Tuesday, July 17 from Nationals Park in the 89th MLB All-Star Game.
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