Look at Jesus Montero. You probably aren’t excited by the .263/.301/.406 work, or the eight home runs. It’s just not a strong package, not after all that hype.
As that hype creates the context that has led to disappointment — an emotion that’s running high among his owners if twitter is to be believed — there are other ways to place Jesus Montero that make him more attractive. Context is key.
The first piece of context was a great surge as a prospect. He peaked at number three on the Baseball America list after 2010, and dropped down to sixth in 2011 behind some pretty exciting young players. Montero had that great combination of contact skills and power coming up, and didn’t struggle at any level. The only tarnish was a question about his defense: would he stick at catcher.
Montero’s current .146 isolated slugging percentage is worse than the numbers he put up at every stop in the minor leagues except for his first 123 plate appearances in rookie ball. He routinely put up ISOs over .200. His current 21.9% strikeout rate is worse than he put up in every stop in the minor leagues. In that context, he’s certainly not the player he was projected to be.
Montero has a double-digit swinging strike rate (12.2% this year, 12.0% career, 8.9% average this year). He hits almost a ground ball and a half for every fly ball (1.45 GB/FB ratio) and has a decent home run per fly ball rate (13.3% HR/FB) that might not actually get much better, given his history and home park. He hit more ground balls than fly balls in his minor league career, too. His BABIP (.304) is neutral, especially for a slower runner. This isn’t an article about how he’s been unlucky or just needs to pull the ball more. There’s a chance we’re looking at the true-talent Jesus Montero, or at least the 2012 version.
While Montero was coming up, the only possible ding on his prospectitude was his glove. Whispers that he couldn’t hack it behind the plate became assertions that since those whispers existed, he wasn’t destined to stay long at the position. He came up with the Yankees and got into 18 games in 2011, and was only behind the plate for 22 innings. Even when the Mariners traded for him, they kept Miguel Olivo and others in their hip pocket and talked about bringing Montero along slowly.
This is the part of the story where the good news comes in. Well, sort of. Montero’s defense hasn’t been great — it’s even been mock-able — but for 2012 and 2013, he’s already done enough. By playing in 30 games at the position, he’s successfully placed himself in a much better context.
Catchers, as a group, are hitting .245/.315/.392 this season. That’s worsted only barely by second baseman (.254/318/.380) and shortstops (.257/.310/.375), but you’ll notice that for roto concerns, it’s possible that catchers are the worst offensive position in baseball. The curse of batting average, yes, but also the fact that catchers don’t usually play a full slate of games. They have fewer plate appearances than any other position, they get pinch-hit for more than anyone, and they are platooned more than any other position.
Suddenly Jesus Montero looks a lot better.
Check out the ZiPs updated in-season projections for catchers. Sort for home runs — Montero’s 19 is seven behind the leader (Mike Napoli) but only three behind the second-most projected home runs by a catcher (Jarrod Saltalamacchia). He’s projected to end up with the seventh-most home runs by the end of the season. Ahead of him on that power list, only A.J. Pierzynski, Buster Posey and Matt Wieters are projected to hit for a better average than Jesus Montero‘s .258 updated projection. Not one catcher ahead of him on that list is projected to have more than Montero’s 555 plate at-bats — in fact, not one catcher in baseball is projected to come within 20 at-bats of that total. The power and playing time stand up now.
It’s all about context. If you’re judging Jesus Montero against Jesus Montero, superprospect, you might be disappointed. If you judge Jesus Montero against major league catchers as a group, you’ll see that he’s a powerful hitter that will get more playing time than any other catcher and won’t kill your batting average like most catchers. That shouldn’t be disappointing.