With Jesus Montero being given a chance to win the starting catcher’s job in spring training, the development of his defense has become an important issue facing the Yankees going into 2011. A few days ago, Joel Sherman raised a point that many have brought up:
The Yankees, for example, want Montero to win this job. But he will play at 21 and — at best — has a lot of rough defensive edges. Last year it took him half a season as among the youngest players in the International League to gain comfort and shine at Triple-A. So the same growing pains should be expected in the majors, at the least. Will the Yankees tolerate such growing pains when they have championship aspirations?
In terms of offense, Montero will largely be taking plate appearances that belonged to Frankie Cervelli, so I think the club and the fans can handle some growing pains in that area. However, considering that there have been significant doubts about his ability to field his position, a disastrous start behind the plate could make for a major blow to both his confidence and his value. I do think that if the Yankees are able to sign Cliff Lee and bring back Andy Pettitte, they can set up a catching rotation that would help ease Montero into the big leagues.
The element of a catcher’s game that tends to get noticed the most by fans is his ability to handle the running game. A catcher who is being run on constantly will be deemed an awful catcher who is turning singles into doubles by dint of his slow and inaccurate arm. One thing that helps slow down a running game no matter the talent of the receiver is to have a left-handed pitcher on the mound.
Right-handed pitchers faced 133,598 batters in 2010, and allowed 2306 stolen bases against 834 caught stealing (73.4% success rate). That means 3140 attempted steals, or one attempt every 42.5 plate appearances. Conversely, lefties faced 51,927 batters and allowed 653 steals to 295 runners caught (69% success rate). That means 948 attempted steals, or one attempt every 54.8 plate appearances. While these stats do not account for a variety of factors, they do suggest that the idea that lefties help diminish the opponent’s running game is accurate. Runners steal less frequently and at a lower success rate when a left-hander is on the mound.
Taking that fact into account, the Yankees should help ease Montero into the major league catching position by allowing him to catch all of the lefties in the rotation. Hopefully, there will be 3 of them, all of them very good pitchers who limit baserunners to begin with. Cliff Lee has seen an average of 10 baserunners attempt to steal on him per season, while Andy Pettitte is a pickoff artist who averages 18 attempts against. CC Sabathia averages 23, but that number is skewed by 2 poor seasons to starts his career, and he is typically somewhere around 18-20. By comparison, righty pitchers such Tim Lincecum, Carl Pavano, and Jered Weaver had 30+ attempts against them in 2010, and AJ Burnett was on the hill for a whopping 42 attempts this past season.
The Yankees can have Montero catch most of the starts by Sabathia, Lee, and Pettitte, assuming the latter two sign. Jorge Posada would catch Phil Hughes, while Frankie Cervelli can handle AJ Burnett. The idea is not to hide Montero or have him do this for his entire career. Rather, this is an attempt to have Montero adjust to catching at the major league level by working with pitchers that can help the limit the damage that his inexperience and weaknesses might otherwise cause. Once Jesus feels comfortable behind the plate, the team can move to a different arrangement.
What do you think of this idea?