First of all, I have to state the basic premise that all of this flows from; Montero’s bat is ready for the major leagues. I don’t really think there’s a good argument that Montero isn’t ready. He hit .289/.353/.517 last season, and started this year with a .365 batting average. No, he didn’t have any walks and his OBP was just .360, but that seems like a rather fine nit to pick. For one, a .360 OBP isn’t horrible in its own right, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with batting .365 in any case. The idea is to get hits, and if Montero was getting pitches he could hit such that he was batting .365, then taking pitches to try to draw walks for the sake of walking is just ridiculous. The odd thing is the implication that if Montero were hitting .320/.360/.XXX that would be fine, but because his batting average was .365 instead of 40-50 points lower he somehow had a problem that needed to be corrected. With all due respect, that’s just absurd, especially since Montero has had very solid walk rates in the past for a .300+ hitter with power, including a 9.1% walk rate last year. To put that in context, Robinson Cano’s walk rate in 2010 was just 8.2%, but I don’t remember anyone complaining about that while Cano was hitting .319/.381/.534 while accounting for 6.6 fWAR.
(And as a brief aside, I’m aware Montero had a very high BABIP, and that we generally hold that an abnormally high BABIP is usually something you’d point to as a red flag and a reason to expect a player to regress, but there aren’t really any conclusions you can draw from that without having access to a player’s batted ball profile. Different types of batted balls produce different results, and line drives result in hits far more than groundballs or flyballs, and result in a hit more often than they result in an out. So if a player, especially a minor leaguer, is just much more talented than the competition he’s facing and is ripping a lot of line drives around the park, you would expect his BABIP to be higher than usual. This is why, for example, Derek Jeter has a career .354 BABIP. Anyone who says Montero’s BABIP was terribly inflated without having access to the information you need to figure out his xBABIP is simply making a claim they don’t have any real evidence for).
Secondly, I’m downright sick and tired of hearing about Montero’s supposed attitude problem. Because frankly, I think it’s an issue the Yankees created themselves. While I’m obviously not around Montero and can’t speak to any personal issues he’s having, when I look at him from a far I basically see a 21 year old kid who’s mostly being told that he can’t do anything right. He’s hit at every level of the minor leagues, but needed to work on his defense. He worked on his defense, then his offense supposedly struggled for that in Spring Training and he lost a chance at a roster spot. Then he went back to Triple-A and hit .365, but suddenly this was a problem because he was hitting too many singles and not hitting for enough power, even though he’s hit for power at every level of the minor leagues so far, including Low-A Charleston and Double-A Trenton where the parks aren’t very friendly to power hitters and including last year at the Triple-A level.
And now that he’s getting frustrated by the mess, like basically any person in his shoes would if their boss were acting the way the Yankees are, and because of that he’s getting accused of having a bad attitude. Again, it’s a can’t win situation for him, unless you’re expecting far too much of a 21 year old playing in Triple-A.
Of course, that’s just my opinion from 100 miles a way or so. For the perspective of someone a bit closer, here’s what Donnie Collins, who covers the SWB Yankees on a daily basis for the locl newspaper, said to me about Montero in an email (re-printed here with his permission). In response to me asking if perhaps Montero was trying too hard to hit home runs, Collins wrote:
Oh yeah. He’s trying to homer his way to the big leagues. I don’t think there’s any question about that.
This is just my opinion, but in his mind, I don’t think he believes he can do anything right. He hits for average, and people look for his power. He hits for power (which he did better than any hitter in this league in the second half last year), and he still doesn’t get called up. Right now, I think he’s trying to get an extra-base hit with every swing. Defensively, he has worked on every problem he has been told he has, and that’s not getting him called up. Personally, I think he’s wasting his time here, so that thought has to have crossed his mind, too.
I want to make it clear that the part about Montero’s attitude and why he might be frustrated were completely unsolicited, and I merely asked if Montero might be trying too hard to hit for power.
However, there are other, more valid issues standing in Montero’s way. One is the presence off Russell Martin as the Yankees’ starting catcher right now, but I personally find this less of a problem than others do. Martin is a solid backstop to be sure, and he did have a tremendous month of April, but he’s come down to Earth hard of late, and is currently hitting just .230/.336/.398. Aside from the slugging percentage, those numbers are actually Martin’s career slash line, though in the current depressed run environment it’s good for a wRC+ of 110, better than his career 104 mark.
Here’s where we start running into problems with the argument that Montero can’t take playing time for Martin, because, if this is roughly the production you should expect from Martin going forward, and it’s good enough to block Montero now, when does it stop being good enough? In other words, if you think Martin is the better option to be the starting catcher at the moment and that he’s hitting well enough to be a better bet to help the team than Montero, why not just go forward planning on Martin being your long-term starter? He’s only 28 years old, after all. Unless Martin continues to be abysmal at the plate or gets seriously injured, he’s going to have to be benched for Montero sooner or later.
The other concern is the quality of Montero’s defense. That issue has been hashed out so many times, including on this blog, that I don’t really care to take too much time dwelling on it here. Opinions of people who have seen him play differ, and all Newman says about it is that he’s improving. I will say, however, that I think we’ve all spent so much time dwelling on the details on Montero’s defensive work that we’ve lost sight of the big picture a bit. Montero is an elite prospect solely because of his offensive potential, and his glove is an afterthought at best. Many of the evaluators who rank Montero among the top 5 prospects don’t even consider him a viable catcher in the long-term. In the best case projections, Montero develops into a below average defensive catcher who can hit a ton. But basically no one has ever projected him to be an above average catcher defensively, and few imagine him ever being merely average. With that in mind, waiting on the glove to come around simply isn’t worth the trouble if, as Newman says, Montero’s struggling offensively because he’s spending so much time working on his defense. If nothing else, if he’s really putting that much time into his defense, he ought to be progressing much more quickly at this point.
And ultimately, while you shouldn’t say defense isn’t important, because it is, it’s certainly not as important as hitting. There are plenty of terrible fielders who have made the Hall of Fame because they were great hitters, and it’s hardly a controversial statement to say that big production offensively will make up for sub-par defense. Heck, not so long ago the Yankees had another 21 year old prospect with a lethal bat but questions about his defensive ability. They brought him up to play a premium defensive position, and in his first 6 seasons he cost the team 71 runs in the field according to Fangraphs. On the other hand, his offensive production was such that he was worth a combined 29 fWAR in those 6 years, including one season in which he probably should have been the American League’s most valuable player. In that 6 year span the Yankees won 5 American League championships and 4 World Series titles. Pretty soon, that kid is going collect his 3,000th career major league hit.
Heaven only knows how different history would be had the Yankees treated Derek Jeter the way they’re treating Jesus Montero.