The Jesus Montero Catch-22

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.

Born in Southwestern Ohio and currently residing on the Chesapeake Bay, Brien is a former editor-in-chief of IIATMS who now spends most of his time sitting on his deck watching his tomatoes ripen and consuming far more MLB Network programming than is safe for one's health or sanity.

21 thoughts on “The Jesus Montero Catch-22

  1. Great post, Brien. And an excellent point at the end tying Montero to Jeter.

    And let's not forget that Jorge Posada doesn't have a stack of Gold Gloves sitting in his garage either. And from everything that's been reported about him, it's reasonable to expect that Montero can be better than Jorge at the plate while being just as bad as him behind it.

    Or we could talk about Manny Ramirez and Miguel Cabrera and their not-so-sterling performances in the field. Like you said, the history of baseball is littered with guys who could rake and weren't necessarily Hoovers with the glove.

    • Matt

      I think the comparison to Posada is an excellent one. Comparing him to Cervelli, the supposed "defensive specialist" who is terrible at defense, is not reasonable at this point. I saw Jesus many times in Charleston–He is an athletic kid. My bet is that he's Cervelli's equal defensively, possibly a little bit better–which is to say, a below average defensive catcher.

      Posada was a terrible defensive catcher. I love him, but he was TERRIBLE behind the plate. He was still HUGELY valuable, though, because he could hit so much better than any of the other catchers in the league. I feel that Montero would develop a similar profile. He may not last as long at Catcher because he just has a very large body and his knees will take a pounding, but he should be a catcher at least through age 28.

      The Yanks missed a golden opportunity to bring Montero up when Martin was out with his back injury. Now they have backed themselves into a corner somewhat, because to call him up now with both Cervelli and Martin healthy would be to admit they made a mistake by not bringing him up earlier and I doubt any of the Yanks braintrust will be admitting that right now. I'm praying Cervelli gets hurt again–Nothing serious, just a sprained ankle or something. I love Cervelli's spirit but he's just not a Major League caliber player.

      By the way, I thought Newman's answer about Montero not getting called up when Martin was injured was EXTREMELY lame. He said Cervelli would have started anyway because he knows the pitchers. Well, if that is the case, how will Montero EVER get to know the Yankees pitchers? Does he have to wait until next spring training? Just a really lame answer. Call Montero up and Catch him twice a week and DH him twice a week. Right now.

  2. BrienJackson

    Well if his defense is that bad at this point, like I've said before (I tried to avoid just repeating things I've said over and over already) he shouldn't be catching at all because in that case he clearly just isn't a catcher. Especially if he's supposedly been working on it as much as everyone claims over the past year, if he's markedly worse than Cervelli behind the plate right now it's just time to stop pretending he's something he's not.

    I talked to a small handful of people who have seen him play yesterday and they were basically split right down the middle on that question. Half said he isn't good by any means, but he's decent enough to hack it in the majors right now, and the other half said in no uncertain terms he can't catch and shouldn't be wasting time on it. They all agreed that his bat has been ready for awhile now and he's currently hurting himself because he's trying to pull every pitch over the wall.

    • jay_robertson

      thanks – your last paragraph sums it up well – with mixed reviews like that, can only imagine the consternation in the multi-headed monster that serves as the Yankee's Brain Trust.

  3. Marc2511

    Could any of the Yankees concerns about calling up Montero be tied to his ability to work with pitchers?

  4. Ben Vinutti

    I expect the Yankees are not bringing up Montero because there will very likely be a period of adjustment for him and if he doesn't hit, he has absolutely no trade value. While there does not appear to be a pitcher of significance available right now, you never know what will be proposed nearer the deadline, and Montero's value, while probably down from his offseason value, would be even less if he is called up and doesn't hit. If you read between the lines of Newman's interview, it is pretty clear that the Yanks view Romine and/or Murphy as their catcher of the future…

    • BrienJackson

      Not to single you out by any means, but why do people believe stuff like this? You really think professional baseball organizations don't have their own scouts watching other teams' top prospects to gather their own information, and aren't more than aware than there's usually an adjustment period for players when they move up a level? Again I don't mean to lay this on you, but it's very odd how these cliches kind of rest on the idea that MLB teams are all being run by neophytes who have less information than I do.

      In point of comparison, what was Justin Smoak hitting last year in the majors when Seattle decided they'd rather have him than Montero?

      • jay_robertson

        "professional baseball organizations don't have their own scouts watching other teams' top prospects to gather their own information"

        again, absolutely right. and so what? – the proof is on the playing field, not on paper, or in scout's opinions. Everyone KNEW that Colon and Garcia would be worth what – maybe 3 wins between them?

        its one thing to have a scout "say" something about a player's skills; its another thing to have the player prove or disprove it on the field. — its a gamble; he might look awesome, he might lay there like a stale hot dog. Right now, as you said, there are mixed opinions. Should he lay an egg (is that enough mixed metaphors?) then opinions will be solidified, based upon results.

        • BrienJackson

          Oh and to be clear, because we might have been talking past each other, I was referring to his bat, not his defense.

  5. David, Jr.

    Very good article.

    I believe that this is quite simple. It revolves purely around whether the Yankees believe that he could be their Catcher in the future.

    If that is a "Yes" – This is nothing more than "polishing the diamond", wanting him to be "overripe" when he comes up.

    If that is a "No" – Then he will be traded when something appropriate comes along. We have several players who will share DH time, so that would have little value, and he looks like somebody who couldn't be position switched to replace one of our excellent defensive players.

    No idea which it is. Just the thought process.

  6. forged

    So take the flip side of the comments for a second (and I'm not saying this is the case with him), but what if Montero is a bad fit for being a catcher ….

    What other position would he fit in at? If he is shifted to playing 1st base, then he will only see playing time as a backup to Teixeira (after he gets used to playing the position). Which would also be limited playing time….. If it is DH, then what do they do with Posada?

  7. David, Jr.

    "What other position would he fit in at all?"

    That is the question.

    First Base – No way. We have a prime age superstar there. He will hit 40 home runs this year and is a Gold Glove level fielder.

    DH – He could certainly do that. However, forgetting Posada and going forward, they have others who could well take that one, such as ARod and Jeter.

    Outfield – This would be bizarre. Like trying to make an outfielder out of David Ortiz or Travis Hafner. No way in the world.

    That leaves Catcher. That is his potential major value to the Yankees. If they think he can do that, they take their time and bring him up when he is good and ready. If they don't, and somebody else does or needs a DH or loves his bat and thinks they can make him into a first baseman, he gets traded.

    • Anders

      Is it beyond question he could play 3B?

      • CS Yankee

        The knocks i hear about his catching is lateral movement on a ball thrown and too long of a transfer from the glove to the hand with a (long) dramatic throw.

        1B & 3B need to be a step quick either direction and he seems to have that (but isn't credited with it that i have seen) but the long drawn out throw could be a real big issue as most of his throws need to go a long distance.

        I'm hoping for him to improve and get maybe 50 games behind the dish, another 50 as DH, and perhaps another 10-25 at 1B or PH but they seem set on him mastereing C first.

  8. I totally agree that Montero's wasted at AAA. However, I'm not sure I agree that, for a catcher, hitting is more important than defense, especially when we're talking about a player, in Martin, who is still an above average hitter for the position, and a well above average defender and game-caller. Also (and I think this is very relevant), both the pitching staff and coaching staff trust Martin, which hasn't always been the case in New York. If Montero does struggle behind the plate, we risk dissension from pitchers who have to throw to him and from Girardi, who has a long history of being tough of backstops, for good or ill, which could further damage his young psyche.

    I urge everybody who expects Montero to be better than Martin over the short term to run a quick search over a BB-Ref. for 21-year-old catchers. The list of productive ones is extraordinarily short.

    So, from my perspective, the best case scenario for Montero is coming up to catch a game or two per week and hopefully DH the rest of the time, which would be great, except now Posada is hitting. If we believe (I don't) that Posada's resurgence is legit than the only role for Montero is a back-up one Would that hinder his development more than continuing to play everyday at a level he has outgrown? I don't know.

  9. Marc2511

    Why not wait out the season with Martin, who is proving he can still catch and if this season rides out as he is playing now his value increases even more? What's the catch 22, Martin gets hurt and you call up Romero? Awesome! David Jr post addresses that there is no glaring need that Montero would fill. If he's not happy sitting on the bench in the minors, why would he be happier doing the same in the majors?

    I do see both sides of the argument however and would love for him to get the ML experience and finally see what we've all heard so much about.

  10. DPR

    Great article. While the Yanks are trying to make their major league roster happier (Cervelli, Posada) they seem to have neglected the feelings of Montero, who is probably not as emotionally strong as those two, since age and emotional strength have some kind of tie to it. (Of course, a few incidents aside, that is). The front office should try to understand how Montero – their future – feels, not how Cervelli and Posada – the past – feels. Just get rid of Cervelli and put Montero as backup catcher and backup DH. Posada and Martin can each play 4 to 5 days a week and Montero can still get his share of games at about 4 games a week. Instead of thinking that his defense "won't project well in the majors", have a looksee and try that out in the majors. Keeping him in the minors certainly won't help figuring how his defense will fare in the majors.

  11. Art Fowler

    Jay, Cervelli never hit at any level. There is simply no comparison — Cervelli's only bright spot was a small sample period where he hit a lot of singles. Montero is a monster at the plate — he will hit. Cervelli probably does not hit enough to be a viable backup catcher. Montero will hit enough to be a full time DH. Martin is a good defensive catcher, who is not a very good hitter — how about having Montero start and Martin as backup?

    • jay_robertson

      sounds like a plan – any way to bring up Montero is fine with me. I was simply stating what I thought was obvious – what if Jesus doesn't deliver? we all know he "will" – but he's not up. someone somewhere must share at least a few of my qualms.

      (say, even if its only a 15% chance of failure – and I think stats for players making the jump to the bigs would say that's definitely in the realm of the possible – what then? that's all I was asking.)

  12. Guest.

    The idea is not to "get Hits", it's not not get Outs. Just sayin.

  13. Guest

    Sorry, typo there: "it's to not get Outs."

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