WAR’s Favorite Position

As best I can tell – using the B-Ref Play Index – there have been nine catchers in history to play at least 50% of their games at catcher carrying Jesus Montero’s size. If we needed something else besides scouts’ wishes to project a move from behind the plate, precedent is clearly behind that notion. The problem is, in the Yankees organization, the only other position available is Designated Hitter, as Mark Teixeira is firmly entrenched at first base until 2016. And deservedly so.

The overwhelming rhetoric is that Montero can support a move to any position, even one that only asks its occupants to hit the ball far and often. His size, his power, his contact skills were near historic levels last season, as he split his age-19 season between High-A and Double-A. However, to be thorough, I went through the Baseball America archives and looked for top 25 prospects that were only ranked on the prowess of their right-handed hitting. I tried to self-edit the players that drew even modest praise for their athleticism or defensive ability, eliminating Drew Henson and Derrek Lee (Andy Marte and Miguel Cabrera) for attempts at even-handedness. In 20 years of ranking prospects, I found 11 similar examples: Billy Butler, Conor Jackson, Brian Dopirak, Jason Stokes, Mike Cuddyer, J.R. House, Pat Burrell, Paul Konerko, Dave McCarty, Tim Costo, Todd Zeile.

This is surely not the most inspiring list for Yankees fans, who probably wonder why Frank Thomas could not have been ranked higher by BA in 1990, or why I eliminated Cabrera. But I think it does a nice job of highlighting the potential risks we have with Montero, and also shows the obvious All-Star upside as well. Two examples stick out as the most poignant: Billy Butler and Paul Konerko. Both are bad-bodied mashers, and Konerko is a guy who had to move from behind the plate young in his career. Butler and Montero split their age-19 seasons between High-A and Double-A, with these results:

Name      PA    K%   BB%   XBH%   BABIP
Butler   549  17.9   8.9   12.9   .374
Montero  379  12.4   7.4   11.4   .352

This is defining XBH% as XBH/PA, so these are big-time power numbers. I didn’t include Konerko, who didn’t take off until his age 20 season. But, I think Yankee fans would be happy if Montero followed Konerko’s path for his age-20 and -21 seasons, in Double and Triple-A, respectively.

Konerko   PA    K%   BB%   XBH%   BABIP
Age 20   572  15.2  12.8    9.6   .313
Age 21   560  10.9  11.4   12.3   .305

Now, let’s fast forward into Butler and Konerko’s Major League reality, using B-Ref’s per 162 games feature, accounting for Butler’s career up to this point, and Konerko’s first seven full big league seasons (1999-2005):

Name      PA   2B  3B   HR   BB   SO   BABIP
Butler   653   42   2   18   51   93   .318
Konerko  656   30   1   32   60   81   .285

Pick the middle ground, and I think this gives us a nice idea of what Montero might be able to do offensively. He’ll align closer with Butler in terms of BABIP and BB, closer with Konerko in strikeout rate and extra-base hit allotment. Overall, a player in the .290/.350/.500 range for his team-controlled seasons. Essentially, the player Konerko was in 2002 is what I envision for Montero. This .369 wOBA would have put him on par with Robinson Cano in last year’s Yankee lineup. He would be worth about 25 batting runs above replacement.

That is, choosing the Butler/Konerko path for Montero – which I think nicely middles the Dopirak/Stokes path and the Thomas/Cabrera path – means that Montero is +25 runs, +0 fielding, +20 replacement and -15 for positional adjustment. Overall, we’re looking at a 3-win player.

You’ll have to look 82 places lower in Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects list to find the Yankees catcher of the future, Austin Romine. But what if Romine spends his team-controlled years getting 520 plate appearances (17.3 above replacement) from behind the plate (+9.7 positional adjustment). If my projection for Montero holds water, and Austin Romine can manage to put up a .340 wOBA and average defensive performance — no stretch at all for a top 100 prospect — then Austin Romine projects as a more valuable asset to the New York Yankees than Jesus Montero.

There are alternate realities for Jesus Montero, in which he gets traded and becomes a plus defensive first baseman down the road. There is a reality that he manages to stay behind the plate, and becomes something resembling Mike Piazza. There’s another where he splits time between back-up catcher and designated hitter, almost negating a positional adjustment in the process. This is a big season for Jesus Montero. If he shows scouts that he won’t do too much damage catching 50 games a season, his value as a top ten prospect stands. But if he stays in this organization, and moves from behind the plate like many scouts believe, Montero quickly becomes one of the game’s most overvalued prospects.



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Peter
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Peter
6 years 2 months ago

Really good article Bryan. I would love to see this turned into a series.

jibs
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jibs
6 years 2 months ago

You go through a series of statistical comparisons to derive Montero’s most likely wOBA at .369. Then you do a little bit of handwaving to come up with Romine carrying a .340 wOBA, simply because he’s on a top 100 list. If that’s the case, why don’t we just project Montero at a .400 wOBA — since after all that’s very no stretch at all for a top 5 prospect.

I’ll bet if you took a list of statistically comparable catching prospects to Romine at this stage and split the difference between the top end and the busts, the most likely outcome would be AAAA or platoon player.

geo
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geo
6 years 2 months ago

You just depressed the heck out of Yankees fans.

Michael F
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6 years 2 months ago

he didn’t depress me. this is the emperor’s new clothes at it’s finest.

philly
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philly
6 years 2 months ago

I’d like to see more support for the idea that those 11 similar players to Montero are really all that similar in terms of age and level of production.

I’ve seen the Butler comp in a couple of places before and it’s a pretty good one, but even there Montero has a huge advantage in K% (12.4 vs 17.9).

I think the point about the importance of positional adjustments is a good one, but I think you’ve undersold how uniquely accomplished Montero is in order to make it.

Mike Green
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Mike Green
6 years 2 months ago

Don’t forget about park/league effects. Billy Butler and Paul Konerko spent most of their age 19 seasons in the California League. Montero wreaked his damage mostly in the FSL. Dopirak never possessed the contact skills that Montero does. Jason Stokes was way, way behind Montero.

As a 19 year old hitter, Montero is further advanced than anyone in many, many years. Cabrera went .274/.333/.421 in the FSL at that age. Vladdy was in the GCL at that age and two years away from blowing away the Eastern League. Ruben Sierra lacked his contact abilities.

Personally, I think Montero is, if anything, underrated. And I’m a Jay fan whose preference in prospects runs to players with a broad range of abilities.

JD Sussman
Member
6 years 2 months ago

Bryan,

Nice write up. I actually compared Montero to Butler too yesterday when my blog launched. Great minds think alike!

Great work, imo.

Josh

Rich in NJ
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Rich in NJ
6 years 2 months ago

Cashman has also mentioned RF as a possible destination for Montero. It’s hard to imagine that he would be worse than Dunn, and possibly significantly better.

Tank the Frank
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Tank the Frank
6 years 2 months ago

As a Yankees fan I’ve been very encouraged with the progress and the steps the organization is taking with regards to Montero’s defense. They’re a catcher-rich organization with great coaches and I personally believe Montero will benefit greatly from their tutoring. Catching is more of a craft that requires experience and extremely hard work, rather than a position such as SS or CF which requires a greater degree of athleticisim.

My hope is that he can split time between catching and DH when he is first called up (2011) and sticks with the club. I don’t think having Montero behind the plate is as far-fetched as most people think. It should also be noted that Montero will be 25/26 when Teixeira’s contract is up. Food for thought…

MAC
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MAC
6 years 2 months ago

Montero will be a 20-year old AAA catcher this year. He’ll be all of 27 years old when Teixeira’s contract is up, so the Yankees can sign him to play there during his peak seasons instead of retaining an aging Teixeira or dipping into the free agent market again. In the meantime, Monetero can be plenty useful during his cost-controlled years as a part-time catcher, most-time DH and occasional 1B.

Yes, there’s huge value in position, but the wailing and gnashing of teeth over Montero’s position is really a bit much. If you can hit like that they find a place to play you.

MAC
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MAC
6 years 2 months ago

“there” = “1B” in previous comment, of course.

Mike
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Mike
6 years 2 months ago

I think people are missing the point-

Most evidence suggests that Montero won’t stick at catcher (scouting reports argue he’s got a good arm but is very slow to release the ball and is still pretty raw at everything else and then there’s the entire point about how he’s likely going to be way too big to stick at catcher, regardless of ability).
The Yankees are currently locked in at 1b forever. It’s doubtful that Montero is going to be able to play anywhere other than 1b over his career.
The questions we need to ask are the following:

1) Assuming Montero is stuck at DH for the first several years of his contract, what type of numbers would he have produce to be seen as one of the five best talents in the game? He’d have to outhit 2003-2007 David Ortiz to achieve that level and chances are, he won’t do that (he could, but those were really good years).
2) Could Montero be hidden anywhere apart from DH over the next several years on NY? How bad could his defense be to not negate much of his significant offensive output? Manny Ramirez is a hall of famer, but his defense has relegated him to “only” being a 5 win player during some truly fantastic offensive seasons.

Really, I don’t believe much of this should impact Montero’s rating that much. It’s not his fault that he’s currently blocked by Teix at 1b. But the author is damn right about how Montero being a DH will seriously cut into his value.
To me, this piece is more about how we come to understand value than how good Montero is. The ability to play a position helps a lot; being able to play that position well, further increases value. Elvis Andrus posted a WAR of 3.0 last seasons; think about that for a moment.

A DH with a .850 OPS is worth about as much as a flashy SS with OPS .702.
For a true DH (Montero doesn’t fit that description, he could be a solid and perhaps even good 1b) they’d have to damn near lead the league in OPS in order to produce as much value as an excellent defensive SS with a league average OPS.

Mike Green
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Mike Green
6 years 2 months ago

Adam Dunn is another good example. At age 19, he was doing very well in the Midwest League, but was well behind where Montero was last year.

Here’s a question. Has there been a player in the last 40 years who hit as well as Montero did last year, taking into account age, level and park/league, who did not succeed in the majors? The last players that I can think of who were ahead of him were Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr.

Montero is, in my view, a very, very good bet to be a 3 WAR player, and has a decent chance to be a 5 WAR player like David Ortiz. This is true whether he is able to continue as a catcher.

radiohix
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radiohix
6 years 2 months ago

” Has there been a player in the last 40 years who hit as well as Montero did last year, taking into account age, level and park/league, who did not succeed in the majors?”
The last FORTY years? I’ll give an example from the last FIVE years,, Let’s call him player X:
Age 18 in A ball (Both in South Atlantic League)
Montero: 569 PAs .322/.373/.488 with 37/83 BB/K
Player X: 578 PAs .322/.388/.538 with 53/120 BB/K
Age 19 :
Montero. 198 PAs .356/.406/.583 with 14/26 BB/K in A+ (FLO)
181 PAs .317/.370/.539 with 14/21 BB/K in AA (EL)
Player X: 370 PAs .336/.386/.582 with 25/66 BB/k in AA (SOUL)
234 PAs .285/.303/.447 with 4/33 BB/K in AAA (IL)
Although, putting similar numbers in terms of OPS and rates in terms of BB% and K%, player X was actually MORE advanced in terms of age than J. Montero and obviously highly ranked in BA lists, also he could field his position.
His name? Delmon Young. Now, is DY a very, very good bet for a 3 WAR player? I don’t think so.

Sam
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Sam
6 years 1 month ago

Player X has a much, much, higher K rate. That does not usually project all that well into major leagues.

glassSheets
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glassSheets
6 years 2 months ago

I just had this discussion the other day wondering why he was ranked as high as he is when his value takes a massive dip with a very uncertain ability to stick behind the plate, but BA loves tools and ceilings.

However, as Mike said ranking him based on where he will play for the Yankees isn’t entirely correct. Doing so IS entirely correct for projecting out his value to the organization as you did above, but that is different than a prospect ranking. If he could move to 1B or catch more for most teams his ranking has to reflect that.

Montero is indisputably less valuable as a DH than C, but IF he would be capable of playing 1B instead of C then his ranking should reflect 1B and not DH. Again, his value to the Yankees should reflect not having 1B as an option, but his ranking should reflect an ability to play 1B.

I agree wit the general conclusion that he is ranked quite high given his positional uncertainty, I just disagree with how far we should go with his downside from a prospects ranking perspective. I was going to comment on trading him making more sense but you already typed that.

Marver
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Marver
6 years 2 months ago

I think it’s a mistake to attribute the entire positional adjustment to Jesus Montero, when part of Teixiera’s value can justifiably be brought down since he may be blocking an otherwise valuable player.

To say Jesus Montero is overrated as a prospect for that, I believe, is incorrect. You should observe prospects in a vacuum and, in a vacuum, Montero is nowhere close to being overrated.

And even if his WAR probability distribution centers around a lower figure than we think right now, there’s no question that the upper quartile of that distribution is astronomical; when you consider the point of the game is to win the World Series and that the astronomical distribution should be weighted heavier because of its increased leverage, I really see Montero as still somewhat underrated.

Mike Green
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Mike Green
6 years 2 months ago

Here’s another touchstone. Joe Mauer. As of age 19, Mauer was obviously considerably ahead of Montero defensively and behind him offensively. Mauer’s last 5 seasons according to WAR are worth 3.5, 6.0, 2.9, 5.8, 8.1. You’d have to consider that Mauer developed at or near the 90th percentile for expectations, and he’s averaged just over 5 WAR.

The way I figure it, Joe Mauer at age 19 had about the same chance of developing into the Joe Mauer we have seen, as Montero does of developing into an Ortiz/Thomas/Cabrera hitting monster.

tim randle
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tim randle
6 years 2 months ago

“Prospects shouldn’t be observed in a vacuum, but should be observed in their value on the open market. A team trading for Montero should see that with the Yankees, he stands to be a 3-5 WAR player, but with them, he could be a 4-6 WAR player. This represents a nice opportunity for an opposing GM to try and get Montero for a talent of about 3.5-4 WAR. Does that make sense?”

EXCEPT i dont think cashman will value montero as a 3.5-4 player if montero is being traded…cash is smart enough to recognize the market value he has and get that value in trade. (er, the inverse of what you just said through cashman’s eyes if that makes sense) i think what you wrote truly exemplifies what a great prospect he is–he’s a cheap, cost-controlled, 3+ war player who is instantly worth even more as long as he doesnt suck horribly behind the plate for 50 appearances a year.

many believe jorge’s defense is less than stellar, and some have gone even further saying he has a ‘damon-type’ arm…i wont go that far, but is there a chance that the NY fans may even be used to a less than awesome defender behind the plate?

as arod, tex and jorgie all age, montero could easily rack up PA’s as a dh, catcher, 1b. when/if romine can take over C full time, montero may get nearly the same number of PA’s, but now competing with jorgie for dh time.

1) reduced behind the plate time for montero may make his knees–and productivity–last longer. same for romine since he’ll have a decent backup.
2) what an awesome problem!

Tyler S (FCB)
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Tyler S (FCB)
6 years 2 months ago

Montero quickly becomes one of the games most overrated prospects if he’s moved from behind the plate? Are you kidding me? Montero could go pitch up a tint in right field and still be considered a top 5 prospect in baseball because of his bat. Jim Callis of Baseball America didn’t say he would take Montero’s bat over Jason Heyward’s for no reason. It is special regardless of what position he plays. Bad article.

Andy
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Andy
6 years 2 months ago

Bryan,
I like the WAR discussion, and the impact of Montero if he can remain behind the plate. I thought I would offer it up in another context. If Montero stays behind the plate, you can get a player like Nick Johnson to fill DH, with his ~0.360 wOBA. If Montero has to take the DH position, for the money you could have used to get Nick Johnson, you end up with Bengie Molina and his ~0.259 wOBA. That is a BIG difference. The free agent catcher market, given the short life span of catchers, is not a fun place to be. It might explain why the Yankees are targeting catchers for their farm system.

Tyler S (FCB)
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Tyler S (FCB)
6 years 2 months ago

And reading through the comments, Mike Green makes an excellent point that Butler spend his A+ ball in the CAL, which basically means anyone making any comparisons between a guys FSL stats and CAL stats is stretching to make a comparison. There is a reason Jon Gaston was not on BA’s top 100 list this year despite crushing 35 home runs in the CAL at a relatively age appropriate level. And no, looking predominately at offensive statistics is not antiquated. Sure, catcher is a premium position, but Jason Heyward plays an outfield role and he was named the #1 prospect in baseball. Sorry, offense makes a prospect. That’s just how it goes.

Mike Green
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Mike Green
6 years 2 months ago

Bryan, your 4:57 post is a good one. My point in a previous thread about weighted averages vs. median is relevant though. Montero’s chance of being a 3 WAR player is probably the best of any prospect in baseball, save for Heyward. His upside is Frank Thomas. If you calculated his weighted average as a DH, it would likely be higher than that of other position players, again save for Heyward.

Most top prospects come with a significant bust percentage. Montero’s is lower than almost anyone’s because of the breadth of his offensive skills.

philly
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philly
6 years 2 months ago

This really speaks to the importance of looking at a broad range of probabilities for every prospect. Just one number is narrow slice of reality and with loose enough assumptions you can make two very different things appear remarkably similar.

Let’s look at some hypothetical success probabilities for Montero and Romine at 5 different levels – 0 WAR/yr (complete bust) and on up to 4+ WAR/yr (low level star production). Montero and Romine might look something like this: (Montero, Romine)

0 WAR: 0%, 50%
1 WAR: 10%, 20%
2 WAR: 30%, 20%
3 WAR: 30%, 10%
4+ WAR: 30%, 0%

Again those are hypotheticals that serve my point, but I do think they’re pretty reasonable.

Bryan laid out the numbers for Montero and Romine to be 3 WAR/yr players. I agree that those futures are both possible. But for Romine that’s probably him playing to his 90% projection. For Montero that might be much closer to his 50% projection.

Sure there’s a point in both player’s career where their production lines cross, but the full range of possibilities for both players is dramatically different.

If the BP PECOTA cards weren’t completely broken, I’d say you could easily find an average player who has a 90% projection that is as good as a very good player’s 50% projection. I don’t think that tells us that we have to radically reconsider our valuation of the very good player. We just need to be aware of the full risk profile and not just any one point.

kevinM
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kevinM
6 years 2 months ago

As many have mentioned recently, the comparison of the CAL/TEX league numbers of Butler to Montero’s FSL/EAST league numbers is rather weak. The FSL is routinely the most difficult league to produce in and Montero’s numbers there were enormous… surpassing those of Miguel Cabrera for instance. Another interesting issue is Montero’s splits as a DH so far in his minor league career (yes, I realize it’s a SSS). In the FSL, his OPS was around 1.200 as a DH.

Considering his offensive production and age, it’s going a bit far to call Montero an overrated prospect, let alone one of the “most overrated”.

Rod
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Rod
6 years 2 months ago

Yeah, I noticed his splits at DH vs C too and got a bit nervous but I’ve since decided to just wait it out some more and see how things turn out. If Mike Piazza and Jorge Posada can play C and Adam Dunn can play in the outfield then Jesus Montero can find something to do besides DH.

Rod
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Rod
6 years 2 months ago

Montero was throwing out ~30% of basestealers in AA. Unless his footwork is completely worthless, he should be able to maintain or improve on that given that the ability to hold people on improves as you get closer to and into MLB. It looks like he might need a day at DH when Burnett pitches but otherwise, I don’t see why he wouldn’t be able to catch until his age 27 season.

AndrewYF
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AndrewYF
6 years 2 months ago

Minor league caught stealing percentages are often completely useless, as almost no pitcher is concerned about holding runners. That’s typically the last thing a pitcher learns, and many learn about it in the major leagues.

If Montero can catch well enough to be a team’s backup catcher, and can DH the rest of the games, you have to factor in roster construction into the argument. No longer do you have to carry a (often) completely useless hitter on the roster simply because he can play catcher, leaving room for a more valuable player.

tim randle
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tim randle
6 years 2 months ago

what was JD’s UZR and WAR last year? aren’t we assuming he’s at least as good as Damon in both fielding and hitting? and yes, i use ‘good’ as loosely as can be expected…if he’s Johnny Damon at much much less expense with MUCH less of a dropoff risk, and can also be a backup or 3rd catcher, doesnt that still make him an awesome prospect??

PS: JD’s 09 UZR -9.2, WAR 3.1 salary 13.1M

Travis G.
Member
6 years 2 months ago

Am I missing something, or does WAR not account for catcher UZR?

isn’t that a big problem with WAR in general? C might have the largest variation between the best and worst defenders and it doesn’t count toward UZR? they also get the most chances on the diamond (when counting for possible WPs/PBs).

also, would catching prevent Montero from playing as often as he could as a DH? probably, not only in total years but in games/year. is 17 years of 150+ games at DH (with quite possibly better hitting) worse than 12 years at 120 games/year as a C (with slightly less offense)?

Efresh
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6 years 2 months ago

Nicely written article. But what’s up with A-rod messing around. He needs to get his thing straight and win another chamipionship.

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6 years 1 month ago

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leila
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leila
4 years 10 months ago

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