To say Miguel Montero hit a bump in the road last season would be a massive understatement. I’ve personally never witnessed a player scuffle so badly and so obviously for such an extended period of time. It was tough to watch and one couldn’t help but feel for the heart and soul of the D’backs as he tried to fight of the funk that was utterly destroying him one plate appearance at a time.

Luckily, Montero is back to form in 2014. He’s taking his walks, the strikeouts are way down, the power is present and he’s getting on base. Some of his hits have been timely as well, which never hurts. It would appear that this is the Miguel Montero of old, but I have another idea: the Montero of old never really disappeared in the first place. Let me explain.

When a player drops off to the degree that Montero plummeted in 2013, there are usually indicators of the drop. The player is swinging more, making less contact, taking too many pitches, chasing too many pitches, striking out more, hitting more balls in the air, hitting fewer line drives, etc. At some level, something generally comes up that is out of line with the player’s previous track record. I dug into the case of Montero and came up largely empty-handed with each stone I overturned. Let’s run through those indicators and I’ll show you what I mean.

The first place I looked was plate discipline. If Miggy was doing something wildly different, I’d expect it to show up here. Here are Montero’s career totals, with his wRC+ added for context of how he performed offensively in each season.

Plate Discipline

Ok, so nothing really jumps out. His strikeout rate was up .5% over the previous season, but not a career high, and not by an alarming margin considering the success he’d already had with a strikeout rate in this neighborhood. His walks were down, but again, not by a huge rate and it was the second-highest walk rate of his career, so there’s nothing to really quibble with there. The BB/K ratio is also in the ballpark of his career norms. Overall, we see some decreased performance over the year prior, but nothing big enough to push him off the cliff.

As noted above, however, these plate discipline indicators are outcomes. What about the process itself? Did he swing himself into a slump? See below:

Swing Rates

Again, we’re left with pretty unconvincing results. Montero has been as steady as they come throughout the bulk of his career and his 2013 numbers aren’t any different. His overall swing rate (48.6%) is right in line with his averages. He wasn’t chasing more pitchers out of the zone than previous years (O-Swing%) and he was swinging at a very average number of pitches in the zone (Z-Swing%). Essentially, his swing patterns stayed in line with his career numbers. But what happened when he swung? Did he start making less contact, indicating a mechanical flaw or slowing bat? Here we might be on to something:

Contact Rates

Montero’s contact rate was down overall in 2013 to it’s lowest level ever, but notice the change: it’s only down .7% over the previous season, his best offensive season ever. Yes, the contact was down, but not in an extreme outlier kind of way. The same can be said for his out of zone contact (O-Contact%), it was down but has been trending downward for a few years, hardly making it a surprise. His zone contact (Z-Contact%) was actually improved over the season past, meaning he made more contact on pitches in the zone over the year previous. Ok, so he swung and missed more out of the zone but made more contact in the zone. This doesn’t seem like much of a red flag when taken in context. Sure, you’d like to see him making more contact, but he’s an aging catcher so this shouldn’t come as a surprise and the magnitude of the drop is pretty small; surely not enough to warrant his disastrous 2013 on it’s own merit.

If the outcomes and the process weren’t all that different, then perhaps pitchers threw to him differently. Maybe the league caught something and exploited it, in other words. Take a look at what pitches Montero saw last season as compared to others:

Pitch Usage

Once again, we come up empty. Montero saw a similar number of pitches in the zone in 2013 (Zone%) as in years prior. The normal fluctuations are present, but nothing is out of whack. My final thought was in regards to his batted-ball profile. Did he hit a bunch of balls in the air? As we know, fly balls are the most likely type of ball turn into an out, line drives the least likely and ground balls somewhere in between. Perhaps something changed here:

Batted Ball

Alas, we have something sizeable to report! Montero traded in a large number of fly balls for grounders. This might usually be a good thing since as we noted above, fly balls are the most likely outs. But context is important here: Montero does not run well. His slow foot speed means that a disproportionate number of ground balls will turn into outs for him compared to the average runner. In Montero’s case, a bunch of grounders could spell trouble. AJ Pollock or Chris Owings should hit the ball on the ground and run like hell, Montero should not. As we’d expect, his BABIP dropped sharply as a result of these grounders despite the fact that his line drive rate remained solid.

But there’s another takeaway here, too. Montero was flat out lucky in 2012. His .362 BABIP was in no way sustainable and a precipitous drop was due to happen in 2013. Unfortunately, it didn’t just drop to his career average, it dropped nearly 40 points lower. Part of this is the law of regression and part of this would appear to be his propensity to hit the ball on the ground last year. Combined, the two effects were devastating.

Miggy’s 2012 raised the expectations for him to an unfair level and the bottom fell out in 2013, so who is Miguel Montero? I’d suggest that the 2012 Montero was a fantastic aberration, one that was a huge boost to the D’backs, but one that we shouldn’t have expected to repeat his performance. If anything, Montero should be expected to perform more like his 2009-2011 self, one where he was consistently good but never amazing. While we’d all like to see the 2012 version re-appear, luck likely won’t allow it to happen. If Arizona is left with the Montero from 2009-2011, however, they should count their lucky stars, because it could be a whole lot worse.

If you watched Diamondbacks baseball in 2013, you probably don’t need to be reminded of that.

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20 Responses to The Curious Case of Miguel Montero

  1. Puneet says:

    It’s just an eye-test and not anything statistically-based, but his swings looked crazy last year at times. It was like he wanted to hit a home run every plate appearance. It seems like his swings are more controlled and purposeful this year, but who knows.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      I would have loved to have incorporated some screenshots of his swing mechanics. There isn’t a ton that appears to have changed mechanically, though, and it’s always tough to compare as he was likely adjusting based on pitcher, count, hot/cold, etc.

      Still, he had some ugly plate appearances last year and that’s what surprised me about the data. I thought we’d see more of a change here considering how bad he looked to the eye. For the most part, the numbers don’t reflect anything drastic. Very counter intuitive.

  2. Puneet says:

    And then he hits a walk-off homerun for the first time in his career. Woohoo!

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      So for an encore, I wrote about the Diamondbacks’ playoff odds today, and if they go on to make the playoffs, I’m declaring myself some kind of baseball divinity. Cool?

      • Puneet says:

        Yes sir! Even if we turn it around and miraculously make the playoffs, I still feel very uncomfortable with KT at the helm.

  3. […] Inside The Zona looks into Miguel Montero‘s hot start. […]

  4. Anonymous says:

    he had a hurt back last year. nuff said. throw all analysis out.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      Not sure I agree. His back hurt last year, so we should invalidate everything that happened? Did it hurt all year? Does it not hurt now? Did it never hurt before? This is pretty lazy thinking.

      Miggy’s not the kind of guy to make excuses and there’s no reason to think it didn’t have some kind of effect, but that doesn’t deem everything from Opening Day to the end of the season as irrelevant.

      • Anonymous says:

        Not sure I agree. His back hurt last year, so we should invalidate everything that happened? Did it hurt all year? Does it not hurt now? Did it never hurt before? This is pretty lazy thinking.

        Lazy analysis was not mentioning his hand and back problems which started in April.

        My opinion, but yeah not mentioning it, does invalidate all stats from last year. He might of been healthy or feeling good for maybe 60 games last year.

        We’ll see how he finishes up, this year, but if he’s used wisely, and not overplayed, which will be hard due to the team’s early struggles he’ll be in line with previous expectations and that will prove last year was the outlier due to injury.

        • Ryan P. Morrison says:

          Anonymous, you’d still be anonymous here if you used some kind of name…

          In addition to not knowing the extent or timing of Montero’s injuries last year, we will never know how much they affected him. So I think your comment — and correct me if I’m mischaracterizing, because I don’t mean to — breaks down to the “we can’t know everything” comment we hear from time to time. We can still try, and fortunately, the effect of nagging injuries, etc., is baked into projections. And now that we have 2014 statistics, working from those helps shed some light.

          For my part, I’m not sure it matters whether Montero had hand and back problems, had some relationship issues, or just had some really bad nightmares. I think the point is that outlier numbers like Montero’s 2013 can be their own evidence that something was not right.

          Montero actually closed the season’s final two weeks very badly, but it might be worth mentioning that we’ve already addressed that Montero had a stupendously terrible six-seven weeks at the outset of last season: http://insidethezona.com/2013/09/miguel-montero-strong-d-backs-asset/

          • Anonymous says:

            Not sure I agree. His back hurt last year, so we should invalidate everything that happened? Did it hurt all year? Does it not hurt now? Did it never hurt before? This is pretty lazy thinking.

            yeah, had surgery too after it.

          • Jeff Wiser says:

            Player health is fluid. He might have been hurt all year, some of the year and he might still be in pain now. At Miggy’s age, I’m willing to bet that something hurts every day. How do we measure this? Do we throw out any information on any player that hit the DL last year?

            The point is, you’re dismissal is speculative and without any concrete evidence. That doesn’t mean you’re wrong, but it surely isn’t going to convince anyone that you’re right. If you’re a regular reader, you know we focus on what we can measure and verify. Montero’s back doesn’t fit that bill. It’s a caveat worth mentioning but not something that invalidates an entire season’s worth or results.

  5. Anonymous says:

    It’s good analysis, if he is on the downside of his career. He is a catcher, but the curtain wasn’t pushed far enough back and no discovery was given to health being the primary driver so the article while good, is worthless in revealing anything, so the article and case is thrown out.

  6. Anonymous says:

    known facts played in only 116 games last year after 140 the previous two. Was on dl last year for back problems. Had hand surgery after the season. Mentions of this in article. 0. goose egg. Only thing that is curious why it wasn’t mentioned.
    Health being fluid is correct if its from overuse, and age, if no there’s no dl or surgery. In this curious case, we found there to be both dl, and surgery. Now, he’s had a more normal start to the season again in line with expectations, the curious case is now the spurious case at best.

  7. […] himself from this group is Miguel Montero. As we’ve discussed at length, he struggled last year but has been a consistent top performer for the Diamondbacks in this category for several years. […]

  8. […] of Miguel Montero has been a welcomed sight for the Diamondbacks. His struggles seem to have been a blip on the radar and we’re certainly all thankful for that. Like with Hill, the projection seems to have nailed […]

  9. […] of Miguel Montero has been a welcomed sight for the Diamondbacks. His struggles seem to have been a blip on the radar and we’re certainly all thankful for that. Like with Hill, the projection seems to have nailed […]

  10. […] we’ve published good work on a number of players this year. We’ve discussed Miguel Montero’s re-emergence, AJ Pollock’s growth, Chris Owings’ maturity, Martin Prado’s hidden value, Evan […]

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