Should the Yankees Promote Montero; Replace Posada?

Jorge Posada

At first glance, the answer seems rather simple. Through May 8th, Posada’s posted a rather tragic .152/.257/.354 (.269 wOBA/65 wRC+) triple slash line. While he’s shown he can still hammer a pitch out of the park with relative ease, he’s shown little ability to do much else with the ball. To make matters worse, his ability to control the strike zone has started to falter (career low BB/K mark of 0.46); his line drive rate has fallen to a paltry 11.3%; and his move from catcher to designated hitter has robbed him of much of his value. When you factor his in age (39 years old), the idea his performance will rebound seems pretty bleak, right?

Ehhhh…not so fast. Like a lot of cases I’ve written about over the past few months, his outcome stat line makes his overall performance look a lot worse than he’s actually performing. Matt Imbrogno’s latest article over at Yankee Analysts, puts Posada’s performance into perspective.

“But aside from homers and walks, not much has gone right for Posada this year. His triple slash sits at .146/.248/.354 with a meager .264 wOBA and a weak 62 wRC+. Jorge’s bound to rebound. I mean, he has to, right? It’s hard to imagine that he hits this poorly the rest of the way. Let’s see if there’s anything that can signal a rebound is coming.

Posada’s career BABIP is .315. Right now, it’s at an unbelievably low .127. If that doesn’t rebound, I’d be surprised. However, this horrific BABIP isn’t necessarily the fault of the Luck Dragons. All the homers and walks certainly haven’t helped Jorge’s BABIP, and neither have his batted balls. Posada’s line drive percentage is currently at 11.6%. Yikes. Unless he starts making more solid contact soon, he’s going to be stuck with a low BABIP and poor results.”

As I’m writing this, Posada’s BABIP is .138, so it’s only marginally better than the .127 Matt quoted for his article. Either way, it’s an uncharacteristically low for someone with Posada’s talent. Actually, to be fair, it’s low even for someone with Brandon Wood’s swing-and-miss tendencies. Still, as Matt points out, Posada’s abysmal BABIP is not completely caused by random chance. His inability to square up the ball and hit line drives has had a major impact on his ability to get hits on balls put into play. As I’ve mentioned in previous pieces, the expected BABIP (xBABIP) for line drives is .720.* When hitters, in this case Posada, fail to rack up line drives, their batting average (and by association, their OBP and SLG) will suffer unless the luck gods toss a ton of luck in their direction. While the luck gods may shine on a hitter over the short-term, it rarely lasts over the long-term. Clearly, they haven’t been shining on the long-time Yankee catcher so far this season.

* As a reminder, here are the xBABIPs for the following plate appearance outcomes: line drives – .720; ground balls – .240; fly balls – .150; strikeouts – .000.

Luckily, there’s some good news.  For starters, despite Posada’s BB/K ratio being slightly askew, his swing and contact rates are well within in his career norms.  Unlike a lot of hitters at similar stages in their career, he’s neither swinging wildly at pitches thrown outside the zone, nor swinging-and-missing pitches at an abnormally elevated rate.  This is a great sign that he’s not only retained his plate discipline, but also avoided the pitfalls associated with slowed bat speed.  Of even greater comfort is the fact that, according to Pizza Cutter of Fangraphs, swing and contact rates tend to become reliable somewhere around the 50-100 plate appearance mark.  Barring any unforeseen injury or unexpected significant decline, we can reasonably expect him to continue to show a similar level of plate discipline over the rest of the season.

Furthermore, Posada’s only accumulated 113 plate appearances (PA) so far this season.  With the exception of the swing and contact rates I just mentioned, none of the other stats we could float out there as potential reasons for Posada’s decline are reliable.  K% and LD% don’t become reliable until approximately 150 PAs; BB%, GB%, and GB/FB ratio don’t become reliable until around 200 PAs; and FB% doesn’t become reliable until 250 PAs.  Therefore, the small sample size argument fits.  While Posada’s results have been subpar this year, it’s still too early to make an accurate judgment on whether or not he’s still a viable major league caliber hitter.

Jesus Montero

Montero, on the other hand, has been spraying the baseball all over the field of play with relative ease.  For the Yankees AAA affiliate in Scranton-Wilkes Barre, he’s mashed to the tune of .370/.385/.457 (.371 wOBA/131 wRC+).  At first glance, it looks pretty impressive.  In fact, you may come to a similar conclusion as Brien, and think that Montero’s learned all he can learn at AAA; therefore, earning him a promotion to the major league club.  While this is both a reasonable and viable conclusion from which to land, I see it a little bit differently.

When I look beyond his eye popping triple slash line, I see a player’s whose performance is largely batting average driven.*  While this isn’t necessarily a problem for some hitters (especially slap hitters with a great deal of foot speed), it is typically an issue for a hitter of Montero’s breed; one who relies on power to create runs.  As power hitter, many of his hits will come on balls leaving the yard.  Since home runs don’t fall within the field of play, they’re not calculated within BABIP; therefore, as he incorporates more power into his game, his BABIP will have no choice but to drop from its current .440 level.  As a result, he’s an excellent candidate to experience BABIP and batting average regression in the coming months.  Luckily, his improved slugging numbers will cover up many of the losses he sees on the batting average/OBP side of the line.

* Through May 8th, Montero’s only walked four times (once intentionally), and hit only six extra base hits in 96 PAs.

Still, though, what do we make of his paltry 3.1% BB% and 18.5% K%?  Can we expect those numbers to improve over time?  Are they meaningful, given the relatively small sample size?  Furthermore, how will his AAA numbers translate to the major leagues?  These questions all have to be answered before anyone makes a decision on promoting Montero.  With only 50-100 PAs to go before his walk and strikeout numbers become reliable, he doesn’t have a lot of time to turn those baselines around.  As a result, they’re probably fairly close to what we should expect going forward.

Dave Gershman of Beyond the Boxscore had an interesting take on promoting prospects through the ranks.

“Basically, a manager sees similar talents in his employees when it comes to their potential to progress in the organization. Promoting someone simply because they’re succeeding in their current role could be premature. Hec (sic), they’re supposed to succeed wherever they’re at which ties back to the point I made previously regarding teams measuring when a player is ready for the next step. Minor Leaguers are purposely given six years of team control after they sign following the draft because they’re supposed to experience and endure the Rocky Road of Professional Baseball. When doing your job whether it’s writing for a Baseball site, filing documents in a law practice firm, or what ever (sic) it may be, you shouldn’t be rushed until your (sic) at “mastering” status. Keep in mind as well that usually promoting someone (in baseball) means that you need to make a corresponding move and there’s no need to do so without a significant reason.”

Interested in a second opinion, Gershman asked Sky Kalkman, fellow blogger and baseball statistician, to add his opinion to the larger conversation

“A hitter’s ceiling might be an 8 on a scale from 1 to 10. Right now he’s a 4. If you challenge him with pitchers with skill level 5 or 6, he’ll struggle, but at least understand why he’s struggling, make adjustments and pull himself up to that 5 or 6. But if you rush him to the majors to face pitchers that are 8 to 10’s, he’ll struggle and have no clue why. Or there are five reasons why. And so he can’t meet the challenge because the challenge is so huge. He stays at 4. But he also might try new things that aren’t productive long-term, such as swinging earlier to catch up with the faster fastballs, which leaves him more susceptible to off-speed pitches. Or maybe he guesses more because that’s the only way he can have a positive outcome. He can hit .240 instead of .200 that way, but approach-wise, he’s further away from getting to .280.”

Kalkman’s opinion is pretty similar to how I feel about Montero’s on-base abilities.  For whatever reason, Montero’s ability to draw walks as regressed significantly.  While his low walk rate might be the result of a small sample size fluke, it could also be systemic of a conscious change in his approach at the plate to be more aggressive.  I’d like to believe it’s the former (and I’m still keeping that option open), but I tend to think it’s the latter, considering he hasn’t seen a similar, proportional decrease in his strikeout rate.  If the Yankees promoted Montero to the big club with his current approach at the plate (assuming his BB/K ratio is a true measure of his talents), there’s a pretty good chance we’ll seem him struggle to not only get on base, but also avoid frequent strike outs—at least for the time being.  He’d be stuck in exactly the kind of battle Kalkman described above:  a hitter with the plate discipline at a 4 or 5 level going up against pitching at an 8 to 10 level.  Rather than improving as a hitter, he could develop bad habits; thus leading to stasis.

Brien might explain Montero’s plate discipline issues a little differently.  Instead of arguing against promotion, he would argue for it on the account that he’s “not being challenged” and could potentially “develop bad habits” as a result.  In all honesty, he could be correct.  It is entirely possible Montero’s issues in this area have been caused by boredom.  Really, I’m not sure if there’s a right or wrong answer at this point.  I just see it differently.  While his concern is rational (and I believe this scenario is something that can come to fruition), I see Montero’s situation as being more of a performance based issue than a motivational issue.  As such, his ship can be righted through work at the minor league level.

In conclusion, given Posada’s solid chances of seeing his performance improve in the coming weeks, along with Montero’s need for a little more development time in AAA, I think it’s in both parties’ best interest to keep things status quo.  If the Yankees are still in the same place on June 15th (the Super 2 deadline), then we’ll need to re-examine our situation.  Until then, let’s be patient with both Posada and Montero, and see how it plays out.

15 thoughts on “Should the Yankees Promote Montero; Replace Posada?

  1. jay_robertson

    Absolutely no reason to bring up Montero before June 15th. twitter or not. If Montero was the god folks say he is, he'd have a few extra base hits; more than that, he'd have some walks, because pitchers would be pitching him more carefully, and he WOULD have plate discipline.

    Most of all – waiting another month gives Jorge a chance to pull an Ortiz and start mashing. Not saying he will, but so far the team has been winning, even with his black hole at the DH.

    • BrienJackson

      Chip sort of mischaracterized my hypothesis, which wasn't so much that Montero is bored as that he's just much better than AAA pitchers, and so there's a much larger range of pitches that are hittable to him. In general, pitches out of the zone get hit much more weakly, but at the same time we've all seen a really poorly executed pitch get absolutely hammered even if it wasn't in the zone (see A-Rod's grand slam in Baltimore a couple of weeks ago). My hypothesis (when Montero's stats were much more otherworldy, FTR) was that he's hitting pitches he can hit and getting singles, rather than working the count and walking or waiting for a pitch he can really drive, simply because ballplayers are going to swing at pitches they can hit.

      It would be a lot easier to analyze Montero's numbers thus far if we had batted ball data. Without it, it's pretty hard to do unless you're watching him every game.

  2. Tom I

    You stole my article! I had this idea last week- except without all the words, stats, and talking points.

    I love Jorge, he's been great and I'll give him a standing ovation when they retire his jersey (They have to do this, right?). However, I think the time for Montero is definitely sometime soon (a month or two as you noted). I've been hearing about his success for years, so I assumed he was like 24 by now. He's 21 though, so that is encouraging.

    Back to my one point/question, do they retire Jorge's jersey?

  3. LarryAtIIATMS

    There are three critical questions here. First, has Montero learned all he can learn about hittting at AAA? I personally think not, but maybe I'm wrong. Second, has Montero learned all he can about catching at AAA? I personally think not, and I bet most would agree with me. Third (a two-part question): is Montero a potential major league catcher, and if not, where should he play?

    The discussion here has focused on question one. If question one was the only question, then I'd say let's bring Montero to the majors and see what he can do. If he can hit, great, and if he can't, there's always AAA.

    The other two questions are more difficult, and more important. If Montero cannot catch on a major league level, then it's hard to see what role he can play for the Yankees long-term. There's no point in converting him to a 1B — that position is well-covered by the Yankees already. Can he play RF, or 3B? Even if he can, that would take a solid year or so of, dare I say it, AAA ball. Is Montero a career DH? If so, again, his role on the Yankees is uncertain, as the team has to leave DH open for guys like A-Rod who are signed long-term but may not be able to play their positions in the field long-term. If we admit that Montero is a career DH, then we're lowering his potential trade value as well — he becomes at best a 21 year-old Adam Dunne or David Ortiz, as opposed to a potential Joe Mauer.

    At the moment, the Yanks seem determined to make Montero into a major league catcher. Fine. If that's the case, then he has to catch. He CAN do this on the MLB level by spelling Martin 2-3 times a week and practicing a lot the rest of the time. But then, obviously, the Yanks have to be prepared to sit Martin or DH him 2-3 days a week, and those days the Yankees are going to be weaker defensively. Should the Yankees be willing to risk losing a game or two more this season in order to let Montero learn how to catch "on the job"? I'd say yes; I'd bet that few would agree with me.

    So if you want to bring Montero up to the bigs but you're not willing to let him catch, what then?

    If all we're looking for is someone to replace Posada, there are two other candidates in AAA, Jorge Vazquez and Justin Maxwell. If instead what we're thinking about is the long-term career development of Jesus Montero, then we have to take the time to determine what role (if any) he's going to play on defense, and give him the time to learn that role.

    • BrienJackson

      I like the most likely answer here is that Montero's body alone means he's probably not going to be able to be a catcher for long. The question is whether he can get by for a few years before making the switch. And I don't really think that's much of a negative. If he's going to be a legitimately great hitter, then being a DH won't really impact his value that much. It probably decreases his marginal value to the Yankees, simply because they have a lot of offense and DH/1B types are a lot easier to find than catchers, but if they tried to shop him as a 1B/DH with a great bat, I don't think you'd see very many potential suitors shying away simply because he wasn't a catcher. Lots of teams could use some more offense, and a 21-22 year old pre-arb player with lots of years of team control left is a pretty good deal.

      • LarryAtIIATMS

        DHs are not as valuable as position players. David Ortiz (248 total games at 1B) has never made more than $13 million in a season. Edgar Martinez's top salary was a little more than $7 million. Guys I think of as primarily DHs (Jim Thome, Adam Dunn) have actually played a lot in the field.

        It's unusual to have a player "come up" as a DH. Edgar Martinez is probably the best known and most successful DH of all time, and even he played 564 games at third base, primarily in his first three seasons. Martinez was not a full-time DH until age 32. With the exception of Ortiz, I associate full-time DHs with older players.

        Maybe you can point me to some precedents for young career DHs who have proved to have big economic value. The closest I see is Ortiz, who I figure was worth 30-40% less than a similar hitter who could also play 1B. So, yes: unless Montero proves to be the next Albert Pujols, I think his value would be severely diminished if he can't find a place to play on the field.

        • BrienJackson

          Well, a team other than the Yankees might teach him to play first for a while. it's not that that's not an *option* for the Yankees, it's just that they've already got a pretty good first baseman.

          To some extent, I think it might even behoove them to give him some playing time at first in AAA to see how well he can play it. If he demonstrates competence AND hits, I think it might even increase his trade value if other teams think he can go straight to the big leagues as a position player.

          • LarryAtIIATMS

            Yes. That's my point, at least in part. Obviously, this gets complicated: Montero is more valuable as a proven catcher. But in relative terms, he's more valuable as a guy who MIGHT learn to catch than he would be as a guy who tried and failed to learn how to catch. My guess is that the Yanks still believe he can catch at a major league level for at least a few years, or else they'd be better off (1) trading him now while he still has value as a potential catcher, or (2) giving up on his catching and focusing on his playing somewhere else on the field.

          • Matt

            The fact that the Montero has yet to play a minor-league game at any other position suggests to me that the brass see him as trade bait more than anything, and as a potential catcher he has the most value. If the Yanks were considering as a key factor down the stretch, wouldn't they want to know what he could do at 1B, RF, etc.

          • LarryAtIIATMS

            Mostly I agree. Catcher is a difficult position to learn, and the organization might not want to make things more difficult by asking him to learn other positions. But with Martin a success (so far), other catchers in the minor league pipeline and no obvious place for Montero to play in the field for the Yankees … I'd guess that Montero might be traded after all.

          • BrienJackson

            I'm not sure that's really borne out by the market though. Remember, the Mariners preferred Smoak to Montero when dealing Lee last year. That's at least in part because they were taking him from a division rival, but they were also supposedly very pessimistic of Montero's defensive ability, like just about every other team reportedly is.

            And as for the Yankees, I don't think (2) follows logically, simply because he doesn't have any utility to them as anything but a catcher or DH.

  4. BrienJackson

    It seems to me that it's much more likely that Montero struggles at first when moved up because he has to adjust to a higher level of pitching, rather than over-excitement. I mean, it could be the latter, but it's pretty much impossible to know that without being around him, and the former is the much simpler answer.

  5. JEP

    Tom I: I love me some Jorge, but retire his number? I don't think so. But then again, if it was up to me, except maybe Munson, the only numbers I'd retire on the Yankees are the Hall of Famers.

    • Mark

      oooh, i really think don mattingly deserves it just to the Yanks even if he cant make the hall

  6. Gene

    I don't really like the idea of turning Montero into trade bait before he's seen a pitch in the Majors. He probably will not be a catcher for much longer whether he's traded or stays with the Yankees. From the scouting reports I've read, his best defensive tool is his arm strength. By moving him to first base you are essentially negating that. I think third base is the best option. It doesn't require an extreme amount of range and it allows him to use his best defensive tool. Also, his speed was rated as a 20 on the 20-80 scouting scale by Baseball America which tells me an outfield position would not be in the best interest of the Yankees or any team looking to acquire him. That being said, Montero is the best hitting prospect the Yankees have had since Derek Jeter (and yes that includes Cano), and there's no pitcher available, or likely to be available, who I would trade Montero for. And, as for the article, Montero started of slow last year in AAA and turned it on around the all-star break, so the high average is encouraging to me despite the lack of power and patience.

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