Jesus Montero will be the Mariners starting catcher when pitchers and catcher report in less than one week. That’s actually somewhat surprising, as Montero’s only real weak spot as a prospect was his defense. Due to those concerns, the Mariners primarily used Montero as their designated hitter last season. They didn’t give up on him as a catcher, allowing him to play 53 games behind the plate. Though the M’s allowed Montero to work through his struggles at the major-league level, his performance was underwhelming. In 553 plate appearances, Montero hit just .260/.298/.386. Montero may not have lived up to his prospect billing last season, but he was just 22-years-old. Entering his age-23 season, there’s still plenty of hope for Montero. And by moving him the catcher full-time, the Mariners might be giving him a much better shot at an offensive break out.
Whether you choose to look at Montero as a catcher or a DH, his performance last year doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence. When sorting for catchers or DH who received at least 400 plate appearances during their age-22 season, you get a list of 17 players since 1969. If you sort by either wOBA or wRC+, you’ll see that Montero did not turn in a promising performance. His 90 wRC+ ties him for 14 on that list, which isn’t good, but doesn’t necessarily lead to failure. The two players he finished ahead of, Butch Wynegar and Yadier Molina, both turned into useful players. Molina is currently one of the best catchers in the game, and Wynegar had four seasons with at least a 3.0 WAR following his age-22 season. The player Montero tied with, Billy Butler, has developed into a strong hitter. The fact that even the players who performed poorly rebounded probably tells you that in order to land a full-time role at age-22, you have to be a pretty talented player.
The performance of both Butler and Molina and Wynegar also shows that there would be some hope for Montero in either role. But the Mariners are set on employing him at catcher next year, and for good reason. Many players who DH typically see their numbers drop when they aren’t playing out in the field. While our sample size with Montero is laughable small at this point, he, too, has shown an ability to hit better when used as a catcher.
*There was a notion within the comments that Montero’s C/DH split had to do with him primarily starting games against left-handed pitching, but this is not true. In games where Montero started at catcher, he faced 33 right-handed starting pitchers. He started at catcher against a left-handed starter in 21 games.
The difference is pretty drastic. While it’s not fair to assume Montero would have continued at the same pace had he remained solely at one position, you can see just how promising his 2012 could have looked had he been used as a full-time catcher. Going back to our initial list of players, Montero’s 135 wRC+ behind the plate would have ranked third, just behind Brian McCann, and ahead of Jim Rice, Ted Simmons, Earl Williams and Ivan Rodriguez. That’s some pretty great company. As a DH, his 59 mark would have ranked him last by a fair margin.
The only downside to employing Montero as a catcher, is that the Mariners will have to deal with his defense. That won’t be a concern in fantasy leagues, obviously, but, as Dave Cameron wrote when the M’s acquired him, Montero would have to be really awful defensively to really hurt the team. The value that he adds with his bat should outweigh the negative value he produces on defense, unless he’s just an abomination behind the plate.
While our small sample limits the conclusions we can make about his performance going forward, Montero does have a few factors in his favor. Very few players hop into full-times roles at catcher or DH as 22-year-olds, and the ones that do are typically really talented. We also know that being a DH tends to depress offensive performance, which Montero has shown in his very tiny sample. Montero’s bat will also extract far more value to the Mariners, and to fantasy teams, if he’s used as a catcher. Though it remains a highly debated strategy, the Mariners may be putting Montero in the best situation to succeed by allowing him to be their full-time catcher.