Top of the eighth inning with runners on second and third. Ballgame tied at three.
Victor Caratini, who’s been one of the lone Cubs’ hitters with a hot bat over the last week, was expected to come to the plate in the nation’s capital on Thursday. Instead, Cubs manager Joe Maddon pinch-hit Willson Contreras for Caratini. The right-handed catcher promptly struck out swinging for the second out of the inning.
Cutting down an All-Star’s at-bats in the final weeks of the regular season would normally be considered foolish, especially if his replacement hit .148 with a .407 OPS in 60 plate appearances from July 20 through Sept. 6. But with Contreras’ power evaporating and Caratini displaying a superior approach at the dish, the latter is clearly deserving of additional work down the stretch.
For starters, Contreras hasn’t homered since Aug. 1, collecting a mere four extra-base hits over this span. He’s also slashed .170/.291/.210 in 117 plate appearances with a 0.47 walk-to-strikeout ratio.
Contreras’ ISO, which measures a hitter’s raw power, stood at .223 last season — the fourth-highest among catchers with at least 400 plate appearances and the fifth-highest on the Cubs. League average is roughly .140. The 26-year-old backstop has seen it dip to .144 in 2018, ranking sixth at both the position and on the team.
Chili Davis, who’s in his first season as the team’s hitting coach, has preached a line-drive approach — rather than his predecessor John Mallee’s launch angle theory. Still, Contreras’ hard hit rate has dipped 6.4 percentage points from a campaign ago despite his fly-ball rate increasing by 2.2 percentage points and his line drive rate matching last season’s 17.4 percent.
“We just gotta get the ball on the fat part of the bat again,” Maddon said. “That’s primarily it. And that could be the residue of being a little bit tired. It’s hard to say with him (Contreras) because he always is energetic. He’s strong — he’s a strong human, man.”
Maddon has stated Contreras will continue to see the bulk of the innings behind the plate on countless occasions. Caratini has mainly caught Cole Hamels — with Contreras handling the rest of the staff. The third-year backstop owns the 11th-best fielding percentage (0.99) at his position, catching the most innings in baseball (1,1012.2) by a wide-margin. Caratini has tallied a perfect fielding percentage in his 236.2 innings of work.
Until Contreras’ bat returns to form, though, Caratini has proved he can handle splitting duties in his small sample size.
Since Saturday, Caratini is slashing .462/.500/.729 with a homer and 7 RBI — 6 of them coming with runners in scoring position. 14 plate appearances wouldn’t typically move the meter, but the Cubs’ lineup has strung together a .204/.280/.283 slash line over this stretch. Along with Kris Bryant, who’s hitting .325 with 5 doubles and 3 RBI after returning from the disabled list on Sept. 1, the two have been instrumental in keeping the Cubs’ offense off life support.
“We’re just not consistent in making hard contact, and I can’t defend that,” Maddon said.
Sitting just a 1.5 games ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central, the Cubs can’t solely rely on Contreras’ resume. Caratini has proved his worth, and it’s about time Maddon delivers a message.
Follow Eli Hershkovich on Twitter — Feature Photo Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports