The Jesus Montero Split

catchers and hands - Otto Greule Jr

Full disclosure: there exists some possibility that I've already written this post before. I write a lot of posts, and I write a lot of posts about Jesus Montero, and I don't always remember what I have and have not touched on. What I do know is that I haven't already written this post within the past like five or six days. So let's get to it and you can stop me if you've heard this before. Haha just kidding there's nothing you can do to stop me, what's already done is already done, you are helpless. You can X out of the window or tab but this post won't cease to exist.

It was a huge deal when the Mariners traded Michael Pineda and a guy for Jesus Montero and a guy. The Mariners were supposedly subtracting from a strength to add to a weakness, and Montero had been one of the more hyped position-player prospects in the world. Pineda subsequently got himself hurt and didn't pitch all year. The minor leaguer also got hurt. Meanwhile, Jesus Montero went on to post a negative WAR, and Hector Noesi went on to post a negative WAR. There's a statistical argument to be made that Pineda did more for the Yankees by not playing than Montero and Noesi did for the Mariners by playing quite a lot.

But this post isn't about Noesi, because ugh, and it isn't about Montero's overall season, because whatever. We know that Montero wasn't quite what we would've liked him to be. His OBP didn't break .300 and his slugging percentage didn't break .400. Montero had his share of struggles, but the Jesus Montero we were watching toward the end of the year was different from the Jesus Montero we were watching toward the start. You might have seen this hinted at in comment threads, or straight-up posted in comment threads, but check out Jesus Montero's strikeout-rate splits:

First half: 23% (292 plate appearances)
Second half: 12% (257 plate appearances)

Montero didn't chop his strikeouts in half, but he chopped them very nearly in half, and very much unsurprisingly, the reduced strikeout rate is supported by an increased contact rate:

First half: 77% contact (563 swings)
Second half: 83% contact (440 swings)

Last season, the American League average contact rate was about 80 percent, meaning that in the second half, Jesus Montero was an above-average contact hitter. Put another way, last season Kyle Seager's contact rate was a hair over 82 percent. John Jaso's season strikeout rate was just over 14 percent. Jesus Montero turned himself into something of a ball-in-play machine. His actual slash numbers didn't change all that much, but Montero changed his underlying profile.

If it's more of a granular breakdown you want, it's more of a granular breakdown you get. A table of more splits:

Split Zone Z-Swing O-Swing Contact Z-Contact O-Contact
First half 47% 67% 40% 77% 87% 62%
Second half 46% 66% 36% 83% 91% 70%

Based on that, it's not like Montero's plate discipline improved by leaps and bounds. He saw roughly just as many pitches in the zone, and he swung at roughly just as many pitches in the zone. He swung at fewer pitches out of the zone, but not by a lot. He just put the bat on the ball more, whether the pitch would've been a ball or a strike. To put it in Mitch Hedberg terms, Jesus Montero turned himself into more of a wall. That's not very good joke execution on my part but if I know anything about the Internet, it's that no one ever says no to a Mitch Hedberg reference.

We can split the splits if we want to. Watch!

First half, vs. righties: 23% strikeouts (205 plate appearances)
Second half, vs. righties: 15% strikeouts (156 plate appearances)

First half, vs. lefties: 23% strikeouts (87 plate appearances)
Second half, vs. lefties: 8% strikeouts (101 plate appearances)

The samples are now even smaller, but the evidence suggests that Montero improved his rate of contact against righties and lefties alike. You'll recall that Montero was having a devil of a time hitting righties earlier on. Against righties in the first half, he slugged .309. Against righties in the second half, he slugged .395. For a rookie, against same-handed pitchers, in Safeco Field, after such a first half, that's not dreadful. I've seen more dreadful statistics.

Something else that's interesting is that Montero doesn't have a track record of being a contact hitter before. I remember this was one of my concerns when the Mariners first brought him over. What limited information we have:

2010, triple-A: 78% contact
2011, triple-A: 73% contact
2011, majors: 74% contact

Over half a season in the majors last year, Montero made more contact than he did in triple-A, when he was a top prospect. Because it's half a season, we have to be careful with the numbers, but we have reason to believe that Jesus Montero was changing. More often than before, Jesus Montero started meeting the baseball.

Now we get into the difficult part -- trying to figure out if this is a change for the better, for the worse, or for the lateral. It seems like more contact should always be a good thing, but it doesn't work that way. You don't just want a hitter to put the bat on pitches; you want a hitter to put the bat on the right pitches, especially when it's a hitter like Montero who has the mobility of a suburban apartment complex. Montero doesn't stand to collect a bunch of infield singles, so Montero doesn't stand to gain a lot of value putting bad balls in play. That is, unless he's one of the freaks, like Vlad Guerrero, or Pablo Sandoval. And you don't want to have to bank on one of your players being a freak.

A hitter can produce by drawing walks, limiting strikeouts, and hitting for power. A perfect hitter does all of them. Montero trimmed his strikeout rate, but he also trimmed his walk rate, and there's little reason to believe his walk rate will ever be good, if even acceptable. Montero's supposed to be a premier power hitter and we might still see that, but we can refer to that as "a work in progress". Nothing about Jesus Montero right now can be declared conclusively, except that he is a baseball player, with statistics and a uniform. It seems like it's a good thing that he boosted his contact, but it isn't necessarily a good thing that he boosted his contact. We need to know how, and we need to know the status of Jesus Montero's pitch recognition.

I think my takeaway is this: we can presume, based on the scouting reports, that Jesus Montero is a very talented hitter. That's why the Mariners sought him out, and in two weeks he turns just 23 years old. Jesus Montero has the exact same birthday as Danny Hultzen. Montero is not yet a complete hitter, which is one of the reasons he just posted a negative WAR. Jesus Montero's offense is under development, but the 2012 second half suggests that he is changing, and that he can implement adjustments that have real effects. So it's a matter of making the right adjustments, and this is a hell of a task for Dave Hansen, who has to try to build a could-be franchise hitter out of parts. I'm not going to lie to you and say that I'm confident Montero will develop into a reliable masher, but I'm somewhat encouraged by his second half. He didn't stubbornly stick to what wasn't working, and that makes for greater uncertainty in the future projections. Good uncertainty. (There is good uncertainty.)

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