No matter how you slice it, Montero was one of the top five hitters who played catcher for most of their games last year. At 124 wRC+, he was 24% better at creating runs than the average hitter. That’s hitter, not catcher — and in part because above-average hitters at catcher are expected to be scarce, Montero put up a 4.6 WAR. That’s pretty damned good. The 4.6 WAR made him the second-most valuable player on the D-backs last season, trailing Aaron Hill (5.5) but leading Paul Goldschmidt (2.9), Chris Young (2.5) and Justin Upton (2.1).
This season is a different story. Montero’s recent DL stint cost him almost 100 PAs for the year, but that’s not nearly enough to explain the dropoff from 4.6 WAR to the 1.0 WAR he has right now (which will probably go up a tick before the season is over). The only two players that could match or beat Montero’s 2012 WAR this year are Goldy and Gerardo Parra (Hill has been about as productive as last year, but missed almost half the season). We all know that Goldy made great strides at the plate this year (he’s currently at 6.0 WAR), and thanks in large part to usage in right field that makes better use of his throwing arm, Parra has taken a big step forward as well (4.1 WAR). If the 2012 Montero was on the 2013 team, there’d be no question that he’d be one of the 4 or 5 most important players on the club.
And expecting 2012 production out of Montero this year was hardly a stretch. He’s played in 602 games now over the last five seasons (all statistics in this article courtesy of FanGraphs):
2011 and 2012 were so similar for Montero in terms of hitting statistics that you couldn’t really blame the front office for having some confidence that they’d be Montero’s baseline for the next few years. And there are some reasons for thinking that Montero could bounce back. The ZiPS and Steamer projection systems give us an idea of who Montero might be as a hitter right now, at least in terms of rate stats. Both peg him at over 100 wRC+ for the rest of the season (ZiPS 102, Steamer 108).
So what happened? Take a look at Montero’s stats once you break up by month. Remember, Montero missed a chunk of July and most of August — so I’ve thrown August and September together into one row.
This chart makes two things very clear: Montero was abysmal for the first two months of the season, and his second half has been quite a bit better than his first half. Reviewing the game logs, I’d say that if Miggy made a physical adjustment at the plate, it was probably around May 19th. It’s just as possible that Miggy simply slumped for a month and a half… it happens, even if months like Montero’s April are fairly uncommon for above-average hitters. But was Montero getting himself out at the plate?
Montero’s swing percentage on pitches in the strike zone are remarkably consistent; so are his contact rates. Both are consistent with Miggy’s 2012 (71.6 Z-Swing%, 75.5 Contact%). Maybe there’s some evidence that he was pressing in May to break out of his slump, but if anything, you’d guess from these numbers that Montero was doing worse more recently, not better.
Here’s what’s happened when Montero has made contact this season:
Small sample sizes are all over the place in this analysis, and in the last table in particular — but just as with the other tables, the difference between the first part of the year and the last part are striking. Montero had a very low 16.4 line drive percentage in April — it may be that Montero wasn’t hitting the ball with authority to start the year, failing to square things up as much as he generally does (20.9 LD% in 2012). Line drives are the batted ball type most likely to turn into hits, but LD% doesn’t explain May. Maybe it really is just luck. Comparing the April and May BABIPs with his career BABIP (.314) … sometimes you just hit ‘em right at ‘em (and maybe, Montero was unusually lucky in 2012).
Miguel Montero is signed for four more years through 2017, on a backloaded contract — he’ll make $10M in 2014, $12M in 2015, and $14M in both 2016 and 2017. So long as he can play, he’ll play; and he’ll play for Arizona for the duration of the contract, in all likelihood. He’s not cheap, but he’s been an important player in recent seasons — there’s no reason to believe Montero’s poor April and May won’t happen again, but there’s no reason to believe they’re likely to, either. It seems like the Montero we were used to seeing in 2011 and 2012 is, essentially, the Montero playing for the D-backs right now. As such, his value to the organization hasn’t really gone down, and it seems fairly likely that in 2014, Montero will return to form.
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