Simplifying Jesus Montero
Here’s the starting point: between 2009 and 2010, Baseball America ranked Jesus Montero as the fourth-best prospect in the league. That was one slot behind Giancarlo Stanton, and a few slots above Buster Posey. The next year, BA ranked him as the third-best prospect in the league. That’s one slot behind Mike Trout. The year after that, BA ranked him as the sixth-best prospect in the league. That’s one slot ahead of Jurickson Profar. Scouting is scouting, and prospects are prospects, but nobody does the business better than Baseball America does, and for at least three years in a row, they absolutely loved Jesus Montero. They loved his skillset and they loved his future. It wasn’t a straight Yankees hype job — other sources, objective sources, saw Montero and saw his promise. Montero, if nothing else, was going to be a hell of a bat.
You know the background and you know the current state of things. Montero, right now, is only 23, and if he were on another team instead of the Mariners, some team we don’t care about, some team we don’t watch every day, we’d say “well of course he needs more time.” We wouldn’t write him off; we’d say it would be silly to write him off. And, indeed, Montero can’t be written off, not at this age and not after just 666 big-league plate appearances. But we should talk about what we’ve been able to observe. Montero’s in his second year with the organization, and I’ve personally never been more down on him. I’m preparing a simple checklist for the purpose of figuring out where Montero might be going:
Is Montero going to stay as a catcher?
- Almost certainly not, because he isn’t very good. It’s always been a question whether Montero could stick behind the plate, and while the Mariners seemed to make a commitment to him in 2013, they did so with an understanding that Mike Zunino shouldn’t be far off. If Zunino develops, he’s the guy. He’s the guy who can actually catch. Montero might be able to catch somewhere else, but he’s never going to be a good defensive catcher, and the reality is that his time at the position is probably just about up.
Is Montero athletic?
- lol no. Even after an offseason of learning how to run, Montero still can’t run, and he might be the least athletic player on the team. A good defensive position player doesn’t exist within his body. Maybe he’ll end up at first base, but he probably won’t be great at it. I’m not going out of my way to be critical of Montero because he’s probably a better athlete than I am, but I’m not a player in the major leagues and he just doesn’t measure up.
Is Montero ever going to walk?
- Jesus Montero isn’t programmed to draw walks. The walk he drew last night was his first of the season, and it should’ve been a called strikeout if we’re going to be honest. Now, as a rookie, Miguel Cabrera didn’t draw many walks. As a rookie, Miguel Cabrera was 20 years old, and when he was Montero’s current age he drew unintentional walks in 9% of his plate appearances. Over the equivalent of one full season, Montero has drawn unintentional walks in less than 5% of his plate appearances. And since when is it fair to compare a guy to one of the greatest hitters in the world? Cabrera’s eye for the baseball is just about unparalleled. Sometimes I don’t think Jesus Montero even sees the baseball when it’s pitched.
Is Montero ever going to hit for tremendous contact?
- Montero’s career contact rate is 79%. That’s a little below average. There’s obvious room for improvement, and Montero should improve, probably, but the league’s best contact hitters tend to have been contact hitters all along. If things really break Montero’s way, he’ll eventually settle somewhere in the mid-80s or so. So far this year, he’s been worse than he was last year. A big part of making contact is pitch recognition. That’s the most difficult thing to teach, and Montero hasn’t yet learned it.
Is Montero ever going to hit for big power?
- And there’s the thing that made Montero such a super prospect. Scouts loved his power, or his power potential. We’ve seen occasional flashes of incredible strength, so we know for a fact that there’s a major power hitter in there. Montero’s ISO ceiling is at the level of a league elite. But you know who has even more power? Carlos Peguero. Wladimir Balentien, obviously, had a lot of power, and so did Charlton Jimerson, if you remember him, which you don’t. Good power is only as valuable as the frequency with which it’s displayed, and has Montero even struck one ball with authority this month? Montero keeps mis-hitting baseballs, even when he hits them, so he’s done a lousy job of barreling up. He hasn’t been able to tap into his power reserve, because he hasn’t had the recognition and timing right.
If you want a reason to be optimistic, Montero’s rate of swings at pitches out of the zone is down from something like 38% to something like 29%. But we’re dealing with a sample of not even 75 pitches out of the zone, yet, so that doesn’t say much, and Montero also doesn’t pass the eye test of possessing an improved approach. Evaluating a player’s approach isn’t as easy as looking at his O-Swing% and his Z-Swing%, and for evidence, know that Dustin Ackley and Mike Trout have nearly identical plate-discipline stats. They don’t have nearly identical approaches. If Montero had a good approach, he would’ve hit a baseball hard by now. He would’ve hit a baseball at least off of a fence. He doesn’t recognize pitches, or he does and he doesn’t know what to do with them, and those are kind of important things for a hitter to be able to do if he wants to someday not suck a lot.
On one hand, Montero is young and he was recently one of the game’s top prospects. On the other hand, Montero is a probable designated hitter getting out-hit by whatever Brian Dozier is. It’s not like we can say “well, Montero’s going to lose his position, but at least he can mash.” What we can say is “well, Montero’s going to lose his position, but at least maybe he can mash, if he figures out how to recognize and react to different pitches.” Which is the hardest thing in baseball to do. At present, Montero is something like a below-replacement-level DH. His realistic upside is being all right, without an outstanding batting average and without an outstanding OBP. He won’t run enough to beat out groundballs or stretch singles into doubles, and he won’t walk enough for people to not be mildly surprised whenever he draws a walk.
We basically know Montero won’t be a catcher. We know he’ll subtract value with his base-running. We can be pretty certain he’s never going to have a great approach; he might just someday have an acceptable approach. Maybe then he’ll hit for legitimate, consistent power. As an aggressive-swinging DH. Montero is a young, supposedly core organizational asset. But just what sort of asset is he, really?
I can’t tell you how badly I want for Montero to start hitting. The ship hasn’t sailed. But the engine’s turned on, and even if we manage to board, it doesn’t actually seem like that nice of a boat.