Montero’s Platoon Splits, Capps’ Call-up
Jesus Montero’s struggled against right-handed pitching, except tonight. Also, the M’s now have their hardest-throwing relief prospect at AAA Tacoma – and it’s not Stephen Pryor.
1: This article at The Hardball Times got a lot of attention today, and with good reason. Jesus Montero’s struggles at the plate have been newsworthy given the expectations placed on him and given the high profile nature of his acquisition. Jesse Sakstrup points out that Montero has the 2nd lowest wOBA against right-handers in baseball, and argues that his problems lie in his inability to lay off breaking balls thrown by right-handed pitchers. As the M’s are counting on Jesus Montero to be an offensive cog in the near future, this argument merits some attention. Let’s examine it.
First of all, it’s worth pointing out right from the start that we’re dealing with very little data. Montero simply hasn’t had enough plate appearances to make any definitive statements, and adding in his minor league splits doesn’t add a whole lot of clarity. In 2011, Montero had similarly large platoon splits in AAA, putting up a .728 OPS against righties versus a 1.039 against lefties (as with every split in this post, “small sample size” warnings apply). But in 2010 in the same league, he was at .858 against righties and .903 against lefties. That looks positively normal. From the Sally League (A) to the Eastern League (AA), Montero hit *better* against righties than lefties. It may yet be true that an inability to hit righties will doom Jesus Montero’s chances to add value in Seattle, but we don’t have anywhere near enough evidence to conclude that at this point.
The second, and more specific, claim in the article is that Montero’s struggles against breaking balls from right-handed pitchers are a particular problem, and a possible cause for his overall platoon splits. The evidence for this are pitch-type whiff rates and swing rates – the former apparently coming from Joe Lefkowitz’ pitch fx site, and the latter coming from texasleaguers. Using these different data sources can be problematic, as each site differs in its definition of a whiff and the number of breaking balls Montero’s seen. Just to focus on texas leaguers, since that’s the source of the swing graphic, Montero’s whiff rate comes out at 21.9%, which is high, but not altogether different from Casper Wells’ 18.7% or Prince Fielder’s 20.7% (from lefties, obviously). The swing graphs for just about any hitter look ludicrous, as hitters misread the ball as a fastball and swing away, following the break to some bizarre locations. Take a look at Miguel Cabrera’s 2012 chart here. Here’s Mike Trout’s from this year – and not the point that’s just above the 2nd ‘P’ in ‘perspective’ – that’s a bad swing. The point here isn’t that Montero’s doing something right by being similar to these great hitters, it’s that swinging at low and away sliders like this is common to just about everyone. Adrian Beltre was not alone.
Does Montero swing at *more* low sliders than other right-handed batters? Thanks to Dan Brooks’ new tool, we can normalize for all right-handers and see where/if Montero’s abnormal. Here’s Montero’s chart for curves/sliders thrown by righties. What you see is that he’s above 100% in the low/away zones, which is good evidence that this is his problem. But what if we only look at whiffs? Now he’s essentially dead-on average, and once again I’ll remind you that the samples in each zone are absurdly small. I could point out that this chart implies he’s got more of a problem with away fastballs than sliders, but that’d be disingenuous. The overall point is that swing/whiff rates by pitch types are only meaningful to the degree that they’re measured against a baseline. Do Montero’s swing rates look anything like, say, Miguel Olivo’s against similar pitches? Well, no, they don’t.
None of this is to suggest that Montero has done average-y, to say nothing of ‘well,’ against breaking balls thrown by righties. He hasn’t. Tonight’s line-drive single off a Jeremy Guthrie slider notwithstanding, it’s been concerning to watch him struggle against righties this season. But the focus on whiffs on particular pitch-types misses the real story. Montero doesn’t have an absurd K rate, and he doesn’t appear to have a remarkable whiff rate on breaking balls. The story of Jesus Montero’s disappointing season in 2012 – and the Mariner hitters’ disappointing season in 2012 – isn’t about whiffs. The problems, or at least the variance from the population mean, occurs once Montero makes contact. The M’s are 10th in the league in swinging strikes, and 7th in K% (behind such losers as the Athletics, Pirates and Nationals). These numbers aren’t what’s driving the M’s worst-in-baseball wOBA. Pitch-type whiff rates aren’t going to help us understand how *that* wOBA follows from *those* whiff rates. Hit FX might, but we don’t have access to it. In the meantime, don’t worry so much about Jesus Montero’s whiffs – worry about how the M’s preaching of aggressiveness at the plate produces so little in the way of tangible results.
2: Carter Capps was called up to Tacoma today after putting up ridiculous numbers with AA Jackson – 50 innings pitched, 40 hits, 8 runs, 12 walks and 72 strikeouts. The right-hander the M’s drafted out of D2 Mount Olive College has routinely hit triple-digits on the radar, and uses an odd, side-arming delivery to hide the ball from hitters (which just seems unfair).
I’d expected the M’s to call him up once Stephen Pryor’s rehab assignment ended, but they’re getting a jump on things. That’s fine by me, as Capps has the ceiling to be a closer at the big league level. Jeff Sullivan hightlights just how different his delivery is from Pryor’s in his post on the call-up; I wonder if part of the timing here isn’t to get a look at what it does to hitters to face the side-winding Capps and his above average horizontal movement following/before the over-the-top Pryor with his abnormally low horizontal fastball movement. It may mean nothing, and given that set-up men and closers would very rarely face the same hitters, it’s probably a non-starter, but think of how tough that’s got to be for hitters – one guy throws 99 with an odd 3/4 delivery, making the ball sweep (very quickly) through the hitting zone, while the other throws 97 moving nearly straight down through the strike zone.
Capps will undoubtedly make his Rainiers debut in Tucson against the Padres; he didn’t pitch in tonight’s game in Tacoma, which concluded a homestand. I’ll try to get out and see him when they return, but it’s entirely possible he’ll make an appearance in Seattle in September. No, he’s not on the 40-man, but the M’s will make several changes between now and then, and if he pitches anywhere near as effectively in AAA as he did in AA, he’ll be in line for a 40-man spot. It’s not the same delivery as Danny Hultzen’s at all, but the release point’s similar enough that everyone’s going to be watching how Capps’ stellar command translates to AAA. Hultzen’s obviously stumbled a bit, but Capps is a very different pitcher in a different role, but it’s something to watch.