Should The Yankees DH Montero To Keep His Bat In The Lineup?

Keith Law ranked Jesus Montero 4th among all prospects in his recent prospect rankings, and made a very interesting comment about Montero’s future that struck me as fodder for discussion:

There’s also a concern about the long-term effects that catching will have on Montero’s knees. He is listed at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, and only five players in MLB history have caught 200 games at or above those numbers, three of them (Joe Mauer, Chris Snyder, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia) have had knee and/or back problems.

With a bat this potentially strong, why risk injury or give up the 20-25 games a year when your catcher has to rest? Montero could solve the Yankees’ DH problem for the next 10 years if they commit to it, a move they are unlikely to ever regret.

Brian Cashman recently stated that the Yankees believe Montero is better defensively than some catchers currently starting in the majors, which is faint praise but does suggest that they believe he can handle the position. Assuming for a moment that this is true, Law’s premise that they might be better off just sticking him at DH depends on the answer to the following question: would the health benefits of sticking him at DH AND the defensive benefits of getting him out from behind the plate outweigh the fact that having his bat at catcher is a major positional advantage for the Yankees? There are other considerations, such as the fact that A-Rod may need to DH soon, but I am leaving such issues out of the analysis at this point and focusing solely upon Montero.

Let’s look at the numbers, while noting that Law’s point seemed to focus primarily on health, something that we are unable to quantify. When determining replacement levels, a catcher is credited with 12.5 runs while a DH is debited 17.5 runs (which addresses the fact that similar offensive performance at those positions have widely disparate value). The Fangraphs glossary item on positional adjustments (h/t @alskor) addresses this issue directly:

Essentially, the width of the spectrum of major league players being used at their best positions is about 30 runs – if you have a league average defensive catcher and you make him a full time DH, you’ve whacked about three wins off of his value.

Now, let’s assume for a moment that Montero is terrible defensively, but just competent enough to remain at the position (if he is not at all competent, then it is obvious that he must be moved). According to +/-, the worst defensive catcher in 2010 cost his team 10 runs with his glove. Being that moving an average defensive catcher to DH would cost the club 30 runs, doing so to an atrocious defender would slash 20 runs, or two wins, from the player’s value.

Playing time is another issue that needs to be factored into this analysis. As Law notes, everyday catchers need frequent rest, such that Montero’s bat would be removed from the lineup regularly were he to remain a catcher. The catcher who played the most innings last year was Yadier Molina, who started 130 games. As a DH, Montero would likely be able to start in most games, meaning he would lose 20-25 games as the starting catcher. Now, let’s make another assumption and believe that Montero would be a top DH (again, we assume this because if he is not a great bat, it is almost certain that it would make more sense to try him at catcher, because the club can go out and obtain a solid DH fairly easily). Judging by my Twitter poll of some sabermetric folks, the value of those 25 games is somewhere between .5 and 1 win. Being that we are assuming that Montero will be an excellent hitter, let us go with 1 win gained as a DH. This means that the switch from catcher is costing the Yankees two wins defensively but gaining one win due to extra playing time, for a net of one win lost per season.

One other factor that needs to be raised is the idea that Montero may hit better if he is not getting beaten up behind the plate on a daily basis. I do not have access to the research on this issue, and from what I have heard it is fairly murky. As such, I will simply note that intuition would tell you that it should be easier for a player to focus upon hitting without the physical and mental burden of running the game as the catcher weighing upon him.

Obviously, the numbers can be fiddled with by altering the assumptions that were made in the course of analysis. If you maintain the assumption that Jesus will be a great hitter but peg him as a -5 defensive player, the loss becomes 1.5 wins. Similarly, if you maintain the assumption about his defense but think we are being overly optimistic about his bat, you again end up with a loss of 1.5 wins. I think it is fair to say that statistically, moving Montero from catcher to DH would cost the Yankees somewhere between 1 and 1.5 wins of value on a yearly basis, possibly closer to 1.5 at the start of his career and then dropping closer to 1 as he ages.

Now that we can put an estimated number on the value side of the equation, we need to address the health issue. First, we need to make one last assumption: assuming that they want to, the Yankees can keep Montero for his entire career, such that we can conduct this analysis while considering the value he might provide at the end of his career. If catching costs Montero enough playing time over his career to outweigh 1-1.5 wins a year, it would make sense to move him off the position to save his bat. This is where we get into areas that are tough to quantify. Looking at the history of catchers in MLB, they seem to decline quicker than other players. If Montero’s size makes him a strong candidate for injury and early decline, the Yankees would be best-served by moving him off the position to preserve his bat. If the Yankees do not see him as a particularly high risk for injury, and believe that he unlikely to lose 15-20 wins of value over his career due to the physical strains of catching, they should keep him behind the plate for as long as they can.

The inability for us to evaluate the injury risk makes it impossible to reach a firm conclusion on this issue. I will say that when I first read Law’s comment, I thought that he was mistaken, and now I am not nearly as certain. Montero’s purportedly great bat and awful glove narrows the value gap between catching and DH’ing considerably, and the possibility of injury might close the gap entirely.

25 thoughts on “Should The Yankees DH Montero To Keep His Bat In The Lineup?

  1. Interesting analysis, but I think you also have to include the opportunity cost. Presumably, it would be much easier to find another productive DH than catcher, so if you move Montero to the latter, you’re likely to wind up with a weaker counterpart behind the plate (think of it has Montero and replacement DH versus Montero and replacement catcher). This year, bats like Manny, Damon and Vlad would qualify as a replacement DH, but the replacement catcher market is more like a Russell Martin type.

    Ultimately, I think Montero’s future position should be determined based on the framework of the overall team. I understand Law’s concern about health, but I think Montero can have a nice career behind the plate before being moved elsewhere (kind of like Yogi Berra did).

    • Also, there is another option. Montero could catch an abbreviated schedule for a starter (let’s say 100 games), and then DH another 50 or so. Again, the value of such an arrangement would probably be dictated by the current roster.

  2. Regarding opportunity cost, that is in the positional adjustment. The catcher is way more valuable because he is more difficult to replace. As for the second comment, I agree they can be creative based on need. I just wanted to dispel the idea that it is a slam dunk to have him at catcher.

    • Opportunity cost isn’t really in the positional adjustment. The positional adjustment tries to level the playing field between two players, but doesn’t take into account the other options available in the context of a team. All the position adjustment tells us is Montero the catcher is worth more than Montero the DH. Opportunity cost rounds out the equation by comparing who will be playing the position that Montero is not. When considered in that context, I think it does move closer to a slam dunk.

      • Of course, playing devils advocate with myself, the Yankees have so much organizational depth at catcher, that Montero might be better off at DH. If Sanchez, for example, winds up fulfilling his potential, the Yankees would be benefit by shifting Montero to DH and using the money saved in that slot elsewhere.

        • T.O. Chris

          I actually believe this is the hope of the organization long term.

          Gary Sanchez is already a top prospect in in our farm system and one of the better catching prospects in baseball, from everything I have read on the kid he projects to have a better not much worse than Montero’s but without the massive upside, yet defensively there is no concern with where his ultimate position is and in 3 years time I imagine the Yankees will be pushing for a Sanchez-C and Montero DH combo hard. Of course with Romine already in double A as well you could see the take this strategy and put it into affect as soon as next year if Austin can prove he has enough with the bat.

      • Moshe Mandel

        I’m not so sure about that. The reason Montero the catcher is worth more than Montero the DH is because Montero the DH is by nature easier to replace. While the specifics of the situation facing the Yankees are not included (such as who is already on the roster, who is in the minors, who is available on trade/FA market), I do think positional adjustment includes the availability of a Manny, Damon, or Vlad relative to the availability of good catchers.

        • Moshe Mandel

          Just to clarify, positional adjustment absolutely takes opportunity cost into account, but it does so by generalizing as to the general availability of replacements. In any specific context, there may be factors that are not included, many of which you have noted in these comments.

          • I think the discord here is a positional adjustment factors in a theoretical opportunity cost, but I am talking about a real opportunity cost. Even if Johnny Bench was on the Yankees roster, WAR is still going to consider Montero to be more valuable as a catcher when in reality that wouldn’t be the case. Also, positional adjustments don’t take into account the monetary value of a replacement. For example, Manny cost $2 million, while Martin cost twice as much. A real opportunity cost would factor in this real world information as well.

          • Moshe Mandel

            Yeah, I should have been clearer, in that I essentially agree with you. WAR factors in an assumed league-wide opportunity cost, but not the one specific to this team, which as you said injects some uncertainty into this analysis.

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  4. Eric Schultz

    Great post Moshe. This is certainly a topic that will be discussed ad nauseum once Montero finally makes it to the Bronx. As William alluded to, a lot will depend on the alternatives that the Yankees have available at both catcher and DH, with both short-term and long-term considerations taken into account. There are really two questions here:

    1) Can Montero be an adequate defensive catcher in the bigs?
    2) Is it in the long-term best interest of Montero (and the team) to move him off catcher in an attempt to protect his health and maximize his offensive production?

    Both questions are still up in the air, and while #1 may be in Montero’s control, #2 will likely be determined by external factors.

    If Russell Martin can become even 75 percent of what he was at his peak, then the present need to have Montero catch will be lessened. However, if Martin still looks washed-up, then the present need to fill the catcher position might outweigh future considerations, at least until a viable alternative emerges (Austin Romine or Gary Sanchez would be the leading internal candidates, though Sanchez is 3 years away at least). With Jorge Posada currently in the DH role, the Yankees won’t be able to give that position to Montero now.

  5. to161

    Two words: Edgar and Martinez.

    • T.O. Chris

      Yeah and the comparison I hear most often associated with Montero’s swing (and I have to admit they look eerily similar) is Frank Thomas and we all know what he was able to accomplish.

      • Mister D

        I have said this all along, It is not as though the Yankees are lacking in catching depth (long term). We may want Jesus to catch his first few years, but when you take out time for injuries, rest, and then whole years due to the position… yes, he could end up one of the great offensive catchers of all time, but otherwise he could be one of the great hitters of all time. And he may be able to do that for the next 16 or more years, not the next ten.

  6. nyyankeefanforever

    The idea of signing a prospect and spending several years and several million dollars like the Yankees have on Montero to turn him into a full-time DH for the rest of his career is a fascinating thought, but frankly I’d rather cash him in for an A-list starting pitcher. DH’s are a dime a dozen; the Yankees will need the DH slot to keep some of our veterans’ bats in the lineup for the foreseeable future; and besides, everything I’ve read says the kid projects to be a first baseman anyway, which would be even more valuable, I’d imagine, in the trade wars. After all, isn’t that why Seattle flopped Lee to the Rangers instead of the Yankees last summer — to get Smoak, an MLB ready 1st baseman?

    I don’t believe anyone will ever see Montero catch at the MLB level beyond spring training this season. I’d rather see them start working him more at first in Scranton, where his value and versatility will be more likely to translate into greater value in our hunt for a starter. Great article and comments, though. Maybe we should start combing Latin America now for a giant 16-year-old kid with a sweet swing, no arm and no speed and try for a DH to follow Alex .

    • T.O. Chris

      The Mariners are stupid which is why they made that trade, I don’t know of anybody who thinks that was a smart trade on their part, Montero is going to be a much better bat than Smoak and his fallback position is 1B but yet he has improved his defense at C enough that people have stopped automatically projecting him off of C.

      Why would you ever want to make him play first base in Scranton? He would play catcher since catcher has 10x more value than first ever will, I also can’t imagine a situation in which he doesn’t play for us in the big leagues this year and if he does play for us this year it will be in at least some capacity at C.

      So who is the starter that is available you want? Felix Hernandez is a pipe dream and people really need to get over this idea of him as Yankee because it is never going to happen! He had a chance to sign with us as a free agent when he was a kid and he took less money to go to Seattle, he had no interest in the playing for the Yankees then and he has no interest in playing for us now otherwise he wouldn’t have extended his contract in Seattle.

      The only pitcher I would trade Montero for besides Felix is Josh Johnson and considering all they have done this offseason they plan on going for it and they signed Johnson to an extension last season so I really doubt they have any plans to trade their best starting pitcher either. There is no one available to trade for who is worth it and Montero’s bat is projected to be .300+ with 35 HRs+ there is no way in hell I would be happy trading him for anyone who isn’t the above 2 starting pitchers named and even then I would have mixed feelings.

      I don’t understand where the attitude came from that if he isn’t a catcher he has no value to us, I have heard that all over the place and it simply isn’t true! Keith Law himself said perfect the Yankees could stick him at DH from day one “and never regret it”, Law doesn’t even have a doubt he will hit, he never even considers it in his analysis and as long as he has that bat he is a 3 or 4 hitter in our lineup.

      If we hold onto Montero then we have the chance to replace Tex and Alex in the 3 and 4 spots in our lineup with Cano and Montero and never miss a beat.

      So you want to go find a 16 year old kid with a sweet swing to be the next DH? His name is Montero, we signed him at 16 and he has developed why would you want to trade him away and go look for a kid who won’t be as good, not to mention if baseball comes up with a draft for foreign players that strategy goes out the window.

      I hate that our attitude is trade everyone young right away so we can get someone else in the organization, it didn’t work doing it before and it won’t work doing it now.

  7. I like the idea, but what about Posada?

    • T.O. Chris

      What about him? He is only under contract this season and we won’t be bringing him back no matter how well he does, he can’t play every game this season even at DH and Montero will start the season in Scranton catching anyway. At some point during the season Jesus is going to be hitting so well we won’t be able to keep him away anymore and once that happens we will evaluate how well Martin is doing and how well Posada is doing, if one of the 2 is sucking real bad then Montero will take his spot away from him, if both are performing well then Montero will be a guy who probably plays a little DH, a little C, comes off the bench to PH and possibly even might play first here or there but I doubt it at least for this season. Next year when Posada leaves (Martin would still be under team control) we either give Jesus the starting C job or the starting DH job and try and fill the other one through internal options (Romine or Martin at C) or externally (sign or trade for a DH).

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  9. T.O. Chris

    God I wish I had your screen name! All I think of is Chappelle Show every time I see it haha.

  10. leftylarry

    No, Posada has one more year, let him DH and be gone.

    • T.O. Chris

      What does Posada have to do with Montero being a DH long term or not?

      I agree that Posada needs to be the starting DH to start the year and then when the season is done he has to retire or move on but I don’t see why Montero won’t be able to share DH at bats with Posada just as he will probably share catching ABs with Martin.

  11. [...] very question was pondered by Moshe Mandel of The Yankee U. You may scream “No!” initially, but when factoring in [...]

  12. Avi

    Just saw this article. Great analysis.
    Few points:
    - Montero can DH in the 25-30 games he doesn’t catch. Therefore the difference in WARs (catcher and DH) isn’t as great. Other catchers don’t hit when they’re off because there are better hitters on their team’s available to DH.
    - His WAR as catcher is reduced due to decreased playing time. He’ll catch every game in the playoffs. Being that the Yankees can and most likely will make the playoffs without Montero you can’t just look at the respective WARs he would provide when determining where he’s most valuable to the Yankees.
    - Another reason why Montero’s respective WARs aren’t as relevant is because the Yankees with their money will always be able to get a DH that provides more WAR than the catchers they’ll be able to obtain, more so than other teams. Good hitting catchers are never available on the open market.

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