It's funny the way we forget what time does. It seemed absolutely impossible that the Mariners would trade Ichiro, until the Mariners traded Ichiro. Most of us got used to it within, I don't know, a week. It seemed highly unlikely that Justin Smoak would once again be a complete and utter pile of crap. Most of us got used to it within, I don't know, a week. When the Michael Pineda/Jesus Montero trade went down, we were floored, and we didn't quite know what to make of things. Most of us got used to it within, I don't know, some weeks. That trade became official at the end of last January, which was obviously well under a year ago. It might as well have been five years ago. The emotions I felt in the immediate aftermath are, today, entirely inaccessible. If I were an actor, and someone told me to act like the Mariners had just made a blockbuster trade out of nowhere, I wouldn't be able to draw upon that experience.
Those were terrifying and exhilarating times. On a Friday afternoon, the Mariners landed their young impact bat, in exchange for a developing ace. We were sad to lose Pineda, but they were sad to lose Montero, because Montero had as much non-Harper prospect hype as anyone in the world. The only question with Montero was whether or not he would catch. The hit tool -- people just took the hit tool, and the power tool, for granted.
So anyway, I don't need to review the whole trade. Montero was an exciting get, because he was a possible catcher who could hit for real power and get slotted into the middle of the lineup. And more than that, he was a righty with a knack for hitting to the opposite field. Jack Zduriencik:
"I do think that [Montero]’ll be an exciting player. And he’s got a great skill-set for this ballpark (Safeco Field), since he drives the ball the other way so well."
Safeco had a reputation for killing right-handed hitters, and it earned it. Safeco didn't have a reputation for killing Bret Boone, because Boone knew how to hit and hit for power to right. Safeco only killed righties who hit like righties, and Boone didn't hit like a righty. The hope was that Montero wouldn't hit like a righty, either. That Montero could go the other way was a major reason why he appealed to the Mariners so damn much.
Since the Mariners traded for Jesus Montero, the Mariners played a whole season. According to FanGraphs, in 2012 Montero hit three home runs to the opposite field. According to FanGraphs, in 2011 Montero hit three home runs to the opposite field, in 12 percent as many plate appearances. Not one of those opposite-field home runs in 2012 was hit in Safeco, as Montero instead went yard in Texas, Tampa Bay, and New York.
Beyond that, Montero is given credit for 116 balls in play to right. He had 28 hits, just five for extra bases. Last year, 97 players knocked at least 100 balls in play to the opposite field. Montero's opposite-field wOBA -- .250 -- ranked tenth-worst. There are some good players near him, but this was supposed to be one of Montero's strengths, and instead going to right seemed like a weakness. Or at least going to right and having success seemed like a weakness.
There were points during the season that Montero would work on this, specifically. There were points during the season where it looked like Montero was trying to pull everything to left. It's not that Montero isn't capable of having success to the opposite field, obviously; it's that he's still trying to figure out when to go there, and what kind of swing to take. There are a lot of parts to Jesus Montero's game that he's working on.
Now the good news, and this news isn't Jesus Montero-specific. Safeco, as you might have heard, is changing its fences! They're coming in everywhere but right, and they don't need to come in any in right. That particular news is weeks old, but it's worth considering what this means for Montero especially. Now, had the Mariners not traded for Montero yet, having a more balanced ballpark might make him a little less uniquely appealing. Suddenly the Mariners don't need to try so hard to find righties who hit the other way. But suddenly, it isn't so important that Montero hit the other way.
Presuming the changes do indeed make Safeco more balanced, of course. We can't predict that, with the consensus seeming to be that Safeco will remain pitcher-friendly, but more evenly pitcher-friendly. If Montero used to be able to hit well to right, and now he's having problems, that implies that something has changed. If that change means Montero hits for power mostly to left and up the middle, the ballpark's about to become a lot more forgiving. It's going to eliminate some doubles and triples, but Montero won't ever make his name on doubles and triples.
Last season, it was a problem that Montero was struggling with going to right, because that was one of his big selling points -- that was going to be key to his having success in Seattle. That might now no longer be the case, as there will be more available total bases to other parts of the outfield. It'd be great if Montero turned into an all-fields hitter, since those are the best hitters, but hitting to right should become less of a priority.
Ultimately there are a lot of issues with Jesus Montero, and many of them come down to simple pitch recognition. I say "simple" because the concept of pitch recognition is simple, even though the act of successful pitch recognition is impossible hard. To whatever extent Montero was concentrating on going the other way, though, that pressure has been reduced. It isn't now about hitting the ball hard to right. It's about hitting the ball hard somewhere, and maybe that'll make things easier. Maybe that'll help things click. Maybe it won't, but won't you allow a man to dream? You should, unless he's driving, or performing surgery. Then it's like, whoa, time out, this is unacceptable.