What *IS* Jesus Montero?
OK, besides “really slow?”
Jeff wrote a good post about Jesus Montero wherein he contrasted his Baseball America prospect rankings and Miguel Cabrera comparisons with the cold, sterile fact of his Mariner performance. In the comments, Scraps asked: “Have we asked Baseball America?” That is, have the prospect ranking pros seen enough to change their early assessments? Are these growing pains magnified by the *need* of the M’s fanbase to see one of the lauded team centerpieces break out? Or are they an indication that the skills Montero showed in the minors simply won’t play at this level?
Obviously, there’s no way to know for now, but I took scraps’ advice and reached out to Conor Glassey at BA and Jason Parks at Baseball Prospectus. Both publications had Jesus Montero among their top 10 prospects in baseball rankings; this isn’t a Baseball America issue, and it’s not a Baseball Prospectus issue, nor is it a case of the Yankee hype machine turning Dioner Navarro into an elite prospect. *Everyone* had Montero as an elite bat with poor to piss-poor defense from the C spot.
Conor supplies us with the case for optimism:
“I still believe in Montero. He was the youngest player to hit 15 HR for the Mariners since Alex Rodriguez in 1998. It’s difficult to catch and transition to the big leagues as a hitter. Montero’s .685 OPS isn’t all that different from Matt Wieters’ .695 during his first full season, and he was two years older than Montero at the time.”
And what about Jason Parks? OK sure, he wasn’t the guy putting Montero in the top-10 pre-2012, but it wasn’t solely Conor’s call for BA either. In any event, here’s your pessimistic viewpoint:
“I watched Montero a lot this ST and he ripped average pitching, just like he did in the minors. But stuff could beat him, especially good breaking stuff. The elephant in the room when it comes to scouting is that projection is abstract, and no matter how sure you are about the player, you can’t accurately simulate or forecast what a minor leaguer will do at the major league level until they arrive at that level. Montero had all the signs of an impact talent, but he hasn’t made the necessary adjustments at the highest level and I’m not sold that he can. He will always be able to hit bad balls, but not being able to deal with plus stuff is always going to be an issue, and its quite likely that he just isn’t wired (neurologically speaking) to recognize and react on the same level as other top bats in the game.”
How do we evaluate this? Well, I’m not entirely sure. But as I’m blogger, I guess I can always go with a trusty Fangraphs table. The problem is trying to narrow down a comparable group. Since 1990, ten players have made at least 200 plate appearances as rookie catchers at age 22 or younger. The group’s a pretty illustrious one, with Joe Mauer, Ivan Rodriguez and Brian McCann among the ten. There are some (familiar) cautionary tales in there too, of course, like Ben Davis. So: we’ve learned that it is exceedingly rare to come up and get much more than a cup of coffee at the age Montero did last year. It also highlights the problem with catcher comparisons: there are essentially two different groups. The first is the pure catchers; the fact that Ivan Rodriguez didn’t really hit at age 19 misses the point. Then there are the bat-first guys that teams hope can stick at the position in the big leagues, even if they’ll never really dominate. Michael Barrett and Jarrod Saltalamacchia belong in this group – as does Montero.
At other positions, it’s not terribly rare for a 21-22 year old to play, as the M’s have seen recently in facing Mike Trout and Manny Machado. But at catcher, it’s not terribly common – something Conor emphasized above. Expanding the age range gets you more players - the college catchers like Buster Posey, Jeff Clement, Mike Piazza, Matt Wieters up through Yasmani Grandal. By wRC+, Jesus Montero’s rookie campaign with Seattle was the 15th best of the group (of 65 players). The raw numbers were much worse, but in context, Montero had a surprisingly good season, even comparing him to older, college-trained catchers. If you eliminate the guys with elite on-base skills (Mauer, Alex Avila, etc.) and the whiff-prone (Salty, Napoli, Clement), you’ve got a decent looking set of comps from Miguel Montero, AJ Pierzynski, Javy Lopez, Eli Marrero and Ryan Doumit. Again, this shows that catchers often do develop later, and that, like all players, they improve at the plate with MLB experience. And Jesus Montero’s first season featured better hitting (adjusted for context) than any of the aforementioned group.
The larger point of course is that Jesus Montero probably isn’t a catcher at all, and thus it doesn’t matter if his bat may compare well with Wilson Ramos’ or even Miguel Montero’s. Catchers generate so much value because of their scarcity; this makes Montero’s 123 wRC+ elite. But give the same hitting stats to a 1B, and he’s barely above average (Paul Goldschmidt’s 123 and position got him 2.8 WAR last year). Add in the base-running penalty because, well, you know, and the gap between where Jesus Montero stands now and where he needs to be looks massive. To have any hope, the power projections that many saw in the minors need to start showing up. His blast in Houston shows that he’s got power, but he’s going to have to show he can drive breaking balls, at least occasionally (he hit a cutter out of Safeco on 4/27, which was pretty encouraging).
The name I keep coming back to is Ryan Doumit (aka “No-Mitt”), the “C” who came up with Pittsburgh, and has bounced between catching, 1B and corner OF spots with the Pirates and now the Twins. While Doumit developed late (as the Pirates kept trying to improve his defense), at his peak around age 27, he was a well above average hitter who paired good contact skills with some power. Improvement in plate discipline with significant growth in ISO he moves into his mid-late 20s…this is a good blueprint for Montero, and it’s good to see that MLB’s been able to wring some value from a catcher-in-name-only in the recent past. But at the same time, we’re assuming fairly big improvement in both power and contact, and we *still* don’t have a legitimate impact bat. Doumit still catches more than he plays other positions, and that helps get his value up towards average. If Montero moves off the position for the majority of his PAs (as he’d have to with Zunino on the team), it’s going to be awfully tough for him to add meaningful value above an average player. So, any time you want to push that ISO over .200 or so, that’d really help, Jesus.
Thank you for reading this not-as-good-as-Jeff’s Montero article.