There’s something to be said about expectations. Rafael Montero’s weren’t particularly lofty, but blowing six saves out of 13 opportunities is enough to rankle the most level-headed of fans. Unfortunately, the nature of relief pitcherhood is that one’s numbers are subject to extreme volatility. This has bordered platitudinous for years now, but it’s true. Montero has perhaps seen some legitimate decreases in metrics that matter, but there isn’t much evidence to suggest that he should be struggling as much as he is.
With a surface look at Montero’s peripherals, you won’t find many red flags. His 0.72 HR/9 is actually deflated — his 9.4% HR/FB is low as well — and his .328 BABIP isn’t ludicrous. What does stick out is his 53.9% left-on-base percentage, which is well below the league-average 72.1%. So there’s some much-needed encouragement.
His ERA estimators all suggest he should be significantly, significantly better too. Despite a 6.64 ERA, his 4.11 FIP and 4.36 xFIP indicate significant positive regression should take place eventually. His 3.37 xERA suggests the same. Given that Montero is at 39.1 innings pitched, it’s probably appropriate to begin to consider metrics like SIERA and pCRA, too. At 3.80 and 3.93, respectively, they think Montero has been a sub-4.00 ERA pitcher. As a kicker, even Alex Chamberlain’s deserved ERA (dERA) — a direct conversion of wOBA to ERA — is at a manageable 4.30.
Given that Montero allows more balls into play than most pitchers — he ranks in the 76th percentile in ball-in-play percentage — he’s going to be more affected by a significant disparity in wOBAcon and xwOBAcon than, I don’t know, Drew Steckenrider. The easiest — and often laziest — way to make an initial judgment is to consider expected numbers on the whole. With a .325 wOBA and .289 xwOBA, Montero has been the unluckiest (most unfortunate?) pitcher on the Mariners, by far. Zoom out, and he’s been the eighth-most unlucky pitcher in baseball.
When only considering batted balls (i.e., xwOBAcon), he’s been the 23rd-unluckiest pitcher in baseball. That ranks him in the 92nd percentile in terms of batted ball unluckiness. Now, Baseball Savant’s expected numbers only consider exit velocity, launch angle, and sprint speed. If it were to fold spray angle into its formula, perhaps we see that Montero has actually deserved his results. Or at least more so than now. Given that Alex Chamberlain’s pitch leaderboard doesn’t account for spray angle for 2021 data, we can’t cross-reference it to validate Statcast’s data. Bummer!
Relative to other Mariners, he’s got the best xwOBAcon and the third-best xwOBA. More granularly, he leads by just about every other metric too. He’s got the lowest sweet spot percentage, average fly ball and line drive exit velocity, and second-lowest average ground ball exit velocity. He’s the second-best by hard-hit percentage and barrels per plate appearance, too. You certainly wouldn’t think it by his outcomes or the way that people talk about him, but, as a contact suppressor, Montero has seemingly been...good.
Given that very few of Montero’s plate appearances end in strikeouts or walks — to be exact, 25.6% of his plate appearances — he leans on batted ball outs more than is typical. Just 13% of pitchers’ plate appearances end in fewer strikeouts or walks. Montero lives and dies by the ground out. For whatever reason, it’s not exactly working out for him, but it seems to be more on the shoulders of the Mariners’ defense more than his. Whether that’s individual players, the way they’re deploying their shift alignments, or mere batted ball luck, he’s put the defense in good positions, for the most part. They simply haven’t reciprocated that common courtesy.
I think it’s important to stare some of his hits in the face, because many of them shouldn’t have been hits at all. Here’s a single that shouldn’t have been, courtesy of Joey Gallo:
A single from Lourdes Gurriel Jr.:
A dumb single, contacted a foot out of the zone, from Tim Anderson:
A swinging-bunt single from Yermín Mercedes:
Yet another swinging-bunt from Ryan Mountcastle:
And a poke from Maikel Franco to beat the shift:
All hits! All varying levels of dumb. For any given pitcher, you’re bound to find a collection of lucky hits. If you’re willing to be disingenuous, you can make this visual argument with any pitcher. What’s different here is that Montero’s unluckiness is borne out in the numbers and the eye test.
As far as defenses go, Seattle seems to be pretty run of the mill. By DRS and UZR, they rank 17th and 19th, respectively. By OAA, they rank 20th. If you only consider the infield — which is most important for Montero — they still only rank just 16th. That shouldn’t be surprising. Kyle Seager is more or less a shell of his former self. J.P. Crawford has had a down defensive year metrically. Ty France has...played a lot in the field. It just hasn’t been a good year defensively.
In fairness, there are compelling arguments to be made that Montero has brought some of this on himself. One is that he’s essentially been a ROOGY. His K-BB% against righties is a cool 21.2%. Against lefties, though, he’s posted a -1.3%. So, yes, he’s been legitimately bad against lefties, and he’s been bad on the road, too. But despite these two things, Montero has managed to put up strong expected numbers, on the whole, this year. And he certainly shouldn’t be faulted for that.
Given that it seems that Montero’s batted ball luck woes are unlikely to be ameliorated any time soon, it would probably be judicious for him to adjust his approach. His struggles have disproportionately come against lefties, which isn’t necessarily new, but it has gotten more drastic. The first adjustment is to adjust his fastball location, and that’s an absolute must. You can see that it’s changed significantly:
The difference is that his fastball previously rode up and away to his arm-side. Trying to bust lefties in on their hands (or more likely, missing) hasn’t been effective, and it’s likely that it’s affected his ability to tunnel his changeup, which, unlike his fastball, he’s continued to locate to his arm-side.
The next adjustment may be to fade his changeup. Despite its 81.5% ground ball percentage(!), it also sports a meager 17.2% CSW and gets put into play too often. Following this logic, he should probably use his ground ball-happy sinker more conservatively as well. The result, then, is more fastballs and sliders, which is hardly appealing. These aren’t good changes in a vacuum, per se, just ones that might help him create more palatable batted balls for his defense, fewer balls in play, and more called strikes and whiffs for himself. The end result should be more strikeouts.
I get it. Rafael Montero hasn’t struck out many hitters. He’s leaned into a pitch-to-contact approach, whether or not that’s by design. While he’s induced the type of contact you might hope from a pitcher of his archetype, the outcomes have been a far cry from what you’d expect from someone who began the year as the closer. Montero will probably continue to be the figurative punching bag of grumbly fans. That’s almost a given. Hell, he might even find himself designated for assignment eventually. But for the most part, the denigration of him has hardly been deserved.