Can You Live With a Bad Defensive Backstop? The Jesus Montero Question

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Originally posted on High Heat Stats.

Back in 2010 the New York Yankees were in possession of a pair of talented minor league catchers by the names of Jesus Montero and Austin Romine. Both players were considered top-100 prospects by Baseball America and both players appeared to be on their way to long, prosperous careers. Romine was considered the finer defender of the two, topping out at #86 in Baseball America’s rankings while Montero was thought to be a powerhouse offensive force, ranking among the top 5 minor league players in the game. While Yankee fans spoke well of Romine they positively salivated at the idea of putting Montero’s prodigious power behind the plate as visions of 35 homer seasons danced in their heads.

There was a catch however. Montero’s defense was considered to be so shaky by the Yankees brain trust that rumors of him becoming a full-time DH were already circulating before he could even advance past Double-A Trenton. Scouting reports pegged Montero’s glove work as shoddy and his throw times to 2nd base as well below Major League average.

When the Yankees finally called Montero up to the big leagues in September of 2011, the team’s scouting report appeared to be spot on. Montero positively crushed the ball in his short time in the Bronx, bombing 4 homers and hitting .328 in 18 big league games. But he hardly saw any work behind the plate, picking up just 1 full game during his September call-up.

That hot September was enough to convince the offensively starved Seattle Mariners to give Montero a shot behind the dish. Seattle flipped rookie sensation Michael Pineda to New York for the offensive-minded catcher, in the hopes that he could hold his own at catcher while his bat did most of the talking.

Well, through the first 160 games or so, that plan has entirely blown up in Seattle’s face. Montero has predictably struggled to cut it as a Major League catcher, ranking dead last in nearly every single quantifiable defensive category. (Montero’s been a near-disaster with a bat in his hands as well, but that was much more unlikely and quite frankly, impossible to predict, so let’s steer clear of this area for now.)

The Yankees, meanwhile, have gone in the opposite direction, opting for a defensive-first catcher. This year’s trio of catchers (Chris Stewart, Francisco Cervelli, and Austin Romine) are all regarded as solid defenders in their own rights. In a recent interview with the New York News, Brian Cashman reiterated that theme saying:

“Defensively, we have no problem. Actually, we feel we have one of the better defensive catching units in baseball. Offensively, we were bracing for a significant decline on the offensive side. We felt that Cervelli had projection to be an offensive player, but as far as present abilities was more of a backup offensively, but with upside.”

Well, thus far, the numbers would most certainly agree with the decisions Cashman has made. The Yankees have allowed the 2nd fewest stolen bases in the Major Leagues with 11, only trailing the Baltimore Orioles and their rifle-armed backstop Matt Wieters. Better yet, Yankees catchers have caught an impressive 42% of opposing base thieves which means, not only are runners afraid to run, when they seldom do they’re stopped in their tracks.

Yankees catchers also do an excellent job keeping the ball from going to the backstop, allowing just 15 wild pitches/passed balls this season. That ability to keep the ball in front is vital for a pitching staff because it allows a guy like CC Sabathia to have the confidence to throw a slider in the dirt on an 0-2 count with a runner on 3rd. And if you’re a fan of Mike Fast’s pitch framing work, the Yankees trio also excels their as well, ranking among the top teams in the league at getting pitches on the corners of the plate called strikes. Suffice to say, Brian Cashman’s gamble on Stewart, Cervelli, and Romine has paid off.

The same can’t be said for Seattle’s gamble on Jesus Montero. Montero has been positively brutal behind the dish in his short time in the Emerald City. In 712 total innings (81 games) since coming over from New York, Montero has allowed 77 stolen bases while catching just 12 total runners. His 13.5% caught stealing ratio is about half as good as the Major League average. Factor that out to a full season of work and Montero gives some of the worst catchers over the past decade a run for their money.

The problems don’t stop their either. Jeff Sullivan of Lookout Landing and Fangraphs wrote a fascinating article on Montero’s stabs a year ago and it’s well worth checking out if you want all the gory details. Montero is a classic stabber when he receives a pitch, opting to push his glove at the ball rather than receiving the ball with as little movement as possible. Now, this type of glove movement doesn’t have too much of an effect, but it can be the difference between getting a borderline call or two at the plate, which, at the Major League level could be the difference between a win and a loss.

The funny thing is, the Mariners knew, or should have known, all of this. Prospect profiles on websites from Fangraphs to Baseball America to MLB.com to ESPN all viewed Montero as a poor defender, with the harshest critics suggesting an immediate move from to catcher or DH. The Yankees front office also appeared to have a complete lack of trust in Montero to get the job done and basically refused to play him behind the dish during his short call-up.

The good news is that Montero is only 23-years-old and has only 180 or so games under his belt. He still has plenty of room to improve as a hitter and his 22 homers in such a small amount of time should offer hope. But his days as a catcher should be numbered. Seattle needs to move Montero to DH full-time or they need to finally cut bait with 1st baseman Justin Smoak in order to give Montero a look at the corner. The fact is, Montero never was, never is, and never will be a league average defensive backstop. Seattle needs to realize that now before they derail yet another formerly promising prospect’s career as well as their own season.

Big thanks to Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs for the statistical help.

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