MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Chicago Cubs

Montero and Cervelli: Twin Stories Colliding in the City of Bridges

The most fascinating players on the field on Wednesday night in Pittsburgh are likely to be Gerrit Cole and Jake Arrieta. They’re the aces, after all. They’re the huge names around whose matchup anticipation so nicely formed in the final days and weeks of the regular season. Starting pitchers take center stage during the postseason, if only because the narrative machine gets to whirring and clicking once October comes around, and starters are the players around whom a game’s narrative can most easily center.

Yes, Arrieta and Cole are crucial to their teams’ chances of playing deeper into the playoffs, but don’t get so locked into tunnel vision on them that you miss the two men who might more perfectly represent what their respective clubs are about and how they got here, and who might well be the actual deciders of the outcome of Wednesday’s game. To see them, on every pitch, you’ll just have to look a little over 60 feet deeper into your TV.

Miguel Montero and Francisco Cervelli are both Venezuelan sons of European immigrant parents. Both of Montero’s parents moved from Spain to Caracas when they were themselves young, and Cervelli’s father moved from Bari, Italy to Valencia, Venezuela at the end of the post-War wave of immigration, during his own adolescence. Each catcher professes an appreciation and understanding of his heritage, but each also considers himself a Venezuelan. Both men take pride in their enthusiasm, and Cervelli ardently attributes it to his Caribbean roots. Cervelli plays the role a catcher must, on the MLB team most committed to pitching inside, by sometimes diplomatically defusing opponents’ anger, and sometimes simply making sure he’s between his guy and the other guy. He flips his bat after big home runs and carries himself with swagger. “That’s Cervelli,” he once said, in his own defense, after a celebration that incensed John Lackey when the two were in the American League.

Montero can pimp a homer a little, too, but he mostly gets his energy out verbally. He is the progenitor of #WeAreGood (and the underrated concomitant coinage #woow), a high-pitched voice from the corner of the clubhouse with (always) the perfect barb for his intended target, and (presumably) a big part of the dance parties the Cubs have after every win.

Despite their proudly Latin personalities, though, both men carry the Old World in their faces, and they have become two of the foremost artisans in one of baseball’s most difficult, important crafts. Montero and Cervelli do with the strike zone what El Greco and Da Vinci did with canvas—own it, beautify it, stretch it beyond what might have been its potential in lesser hands. They’re also proving to be the perfect people to guide their respective pitching staffs, and providing significant offensive value along the way.

Yes, both of these backstops have become the heartbeat of their teams this season, which is strange, because a year ago, one was a backup in the big city, and one was lost in the desert.

Cervelli’s path to this stage of his career is long, but well-documented. He was a Yankee farmhand for years, struggling to learn catching after primarily playing the middle infield and pitching in his youth. He would seem to be on the verge of earning a prolonged audition, or even a full-time role, but then would get hurt, or be shuffled back into the deck and blocked by another catcher. He was suspended for PEDs, then permanently cut off from a starting role by the Yankees’ signing of Brian McCann prior to the 2014 season. When he was dealt to the Pirates last November, the move drew snickers, because it marked the third straight year in which Pittsburgh had traded for a Yankee catcher. Cervelli, 29, has at least one more year of team control left, though, so he’s going to be the last one the Pirates need for at least that long. (Credit Neal Huntington with identifying a well of affordable catchers with great framing skills, and being willing to go back to it.)

For Cervelli, the key to success turned out to be pretty simple: he just needed health and opportunity. He played 130 games for the Pirates in 2015, 54 more than he’d played the previous two seasons combined. Once he got that kind of room, he blossomed even at the plate, showing the modest pop and good strike-zone command that so often shows up late in catchers because of the physical and technical demands of the position defensively. Paired with his excellent framing skills, that made him more or less a star.

Things once came that easily for Montero, but he probably doesn’t remember quite how. Two and a half years Cervelli’s senior, Montero is moving quickly into the phase of a career at which catchers often burn out. He got that out of the way early, though. Montero was a star at 25 years old and (literally) an All-Star for the Diamondbacks at 27, in 2011. He caught the third-most games of any catcher in baseball that year, though, and the most of anyone in 2012, and things quickly caught up to him. Montero is less than six feet in height and fairly slight of frame, which has helped him avoid some of the stress-and-strain injuries that often befall catchers, but that also makes it difficult for him to hold up under such workloads.

Montero made 111 starts behind the plate in 2013, and it was only that low because of a four-week DL stint. In 2014, it was back to the grind, as he started 130 games at catcher—and completed 125 of them! He made it out there both years, for the most part, but he broke down badly as each season wore on. He needed a fresh start, somewhere where such a heavy workload wouldn’t be necessary, but it was hard for Arizona to move his hefty three-year, $40-million obligation over this past winter. The Cubs swooped in, grabbed Montero, and have reaped huge benefits. In 2015, Montero caught only 106 games, 90 as a starter, 76 of those from beginning to end. Unsurprisingly, he turned that extra rest into the best season he’s had in years.

Montero finished with a .279 True Average, easily his best in three years, and with a fresher body, he was also a better framer. He nabbed the Cubs 14.2 extra runs that way this season, a number he hadn’t reached since 2009—and he had much more playing time in which to accrue that value then. Indeed, only three catchers were worth more as pitch framers than Montero was in 2015, and Montero had far fewer chances to make that impact than anyone else in the top eight. (Of course, one of those above him was Cervelli. Montero has been better on a rate basis, but Cervelli has sustained that value over a catcher’s full workload, and then some.) One of the Cubs’ biggest areas of improvement this season was framing: Montero, David Ross, Kyle Schwarber and Taylor Teagarden combined to save the team about 30 runs relative to the 2014 catching core.

Now here’s the thing that makes each of Montero and Cervelli so vital to his team’s fortunes on Wednesday: they’ll both have the job of working with their ace to get the best out of them. Early in the season, Clint Hurdle gave Chris Stewart his periodic starts when Cole pitched, more often than not, leaving Cervelli and the Pirates’ ace relatively unacquainted as late as mid-August. Since then, though, Cervelli has taken the reins, likely in order to prepare both men for the eventuality of this game. Stewart isn’t the offensive threat Cervelli is, nor the framer, and the Pirates need their borderline All-Star catcher on the field on Wednesday night. They’ll have him.

The problem is that the few early starts and fistful of late starts Cole and Cervelli have made together don’t seem to have yielded excellent chemistry. In 12 starts with Cervelli catching him, Cole’s ERA was 3.36, and opponents had a .683 OPS. Those are numbers reflective of a very good pitcher, and Cole is one, no matter who catches him. It’s just that his ERA is more than a run lower, and opponents’ OPS is nearly 100 points lower, when Stewart catches him.

That might be changing. Cole’s final three starts came against the Dodgers, Cubs, and Cardinals. Cervelli caught all three, and Cole pitched 21 innings in the three contests, allowing just six runs, striking out 19, and walking two. It’s worth noting that he did allow 17 hits, including two home runs, in those games, so it took a little good luck to avoid giving up more runs. Still, he and Cervelli faced down some adversity together, and might be finding their vibe at just the right time. It’s just that it’s hard to know whether that’s true or not, given the inconsistency Cole has demonstrated when paired with the Pirates’ top catcher this year.

Montero, on the other hand, has been catching Arrieta regularly since they made their season debut together on April 8. It was the top of the first inning, in an incomplete Wrigley Field, on a frigid day, before a sparse crowd, and Arrieta was sluggish. His pregame bullpen session had gone poorly, by every account. He walked Cardinals leadoff man Matt Carpenter, got a couple of slow ground balls, and then fell behind 3-0 on Matt Adams with a runner on first and two outs. On the third pitch—a fastball with which Arrieta tried and failed to hit the outside corner—Montero came up out of his crouch to throw the ball back, but first made a motion to Arrieta. It may or may not have had words attached to it, but what he was conveying was aggression and focus. He wanted Arrieta thinking like a power pitcher, trying to dominate, even from behind in the count, against a dangerous left-handed hitter. On the next pitch, though, Arrieta missed wide again.

Both the Cubs’ and the Cardinals’ TV feeds cut to wide-angle and fan shots for the next several moments, so it was missed by just about everyone in real time. What happened, though, was that Montero sat back on his haunch for a moment, fuming, then jogged out to the mound and chewed Arrieta out. One report called it “a one-sided, rather loud conversation.” It was the first game with anything on the line in which the two had ever worked together, and 17 pitches into it, Montero was on the dirt circle, telling Arrieta to stop being cute and attack hitters. He was right, of course. Arrieta knew it instantly, appreciated it immensely, and responded to it perfectly, working his way out of the inning and going on to lodge seven scoreless innings.

In total, Arrieta made 24 of his 33 regular-season starts with Montero as his batterymate. Opponents have batted .189/.234/.272 in those games, with 171 strikeouts against 32 walks, in 626 batters faced. That utter dominance comes from Arrieta’s fearlessness when working with Montero. Montero caught Arrieta’s no-hitter, and the Fathers Day shutout of the Twins that kicked off Arrieta’s masterful second half. He caught four of Arrieta’s five starts against the Pirates this season. The Cubs’ greatest advantage in this game, on which everything rides, might be that their hard-hitting, great-framing competitive force of a catcher is a better fit for their ace than the Pirates’ equivalent is for theirs.

Lead photo courtesy Kamil Krzaczynski—USA Today Sports.

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