113 G, 403 PA, .248/.345/.409, .279 TAv, 4.0 WARP
Year in Review
If ever you needed a reason to dismiss Wins Above Replacement as a worthless construct that misses the point in every possible way, a good way to start would be by visiting the Baseball Reference page for the 2015 Cubs. There, near the top, you’d see the photo banner the site uses as a quick guide to the top 12 players on a given team by their formulation of WAR. Start at the far left, with team bWAR leader Jake Arrieta, and pan slowly to the right, and the problem quickly becomes apparent: Miguel Montero is way too far away from that left edge. Specifically, according to bWAR, Montero was the 10th-most valuable member of the Cubs’ most exciting, surprising, talented, and fan-friendly team in living memory. According to bWAR, he returned only 1.8 wins on his $12-million salary. In essence, if you consider the value the Cubs gave up in order to acquire him last December, this WAR construct is calling Montero something worse than a break-even addition. It’s suggesting, however implicitly, that the Cubs won 101 games (including four in the playoffs) despite Montero, more than because of him.
I’m not recommending that you embark on this imagined vendetta, of course. I’m a stathead all the way, and Baseball Reference has been the first bookmarked site on every computer I’ve ever owned. The above is just a way of saying that, if you don’t take a careful, textured, multidisciplinary approach to evaluating players and remembering teams, you’ll miss out on the wonderful truth about players like Montero. Because here’s the truth of the thing: without Montero, the Cubs don’t sniff the playoffs. In more ways than one, the 31-year-old newcomer who controversially supplanted Welington Castillo was the heartbeat of the team who might live closer to Cubs fans’ hearts than any this side of 1984.
It started last November, when the Cubs tried to reel in free-agent catcher Russell Martin, but were outbid at the buzzer by the Toronto Blue Jays. As I wrote at the time, that was a blessing in disguise, because it forced them to redirect their attention to Montero, on whom (I believed then, and believe now) it always ought to have been focused anyway. Montero came cheaper (especially given what turned out to be the very low cost in talent when the trade came to fruition), is slightly younger than Martin, and needed a change of scenery to really explore his full potential. (Martin, if anything, was leaving the very best situation he could have been in, as demonstrated by the fact that he enjoyed a career year there in 2014.)
Here’s the retroactive elevator pitch for acquiring Montero: His contract will expire at the end of his age-33 season, so the troublingly sharp aging curve for catchers in their mid-30s won’t hurt the Cubs. He’s an excellent pitch-framer, and framing is a source of huge value in catchers who do it well—often as much as 10 or 12 runs saved. He’s also a left-handed hitter with a modicum of power and good patience, the kind of player who could provide a guaranteed improvement on the sub-.300 OBP the Cubs got from their catchers in 2014.
He was all of that for the Cubs in 2015, but he turned out to be even more. On April 18th, Montero led off the bottom of the sixth inning with a go-ahead home run, and in the bottom of the seventh, he whacked a two-run shot that gave the Cubs a 6-2 lead. It looked over, but the bullpen coughed up that lead, and the Cubs had to win the game in 11 innings, on a walk-off single by Starlin Castro. Montero was pumped after the game, and fired off the fateful tweet that came to symbolize the simple, swelling, raucous confidence that both the team and their fans would carry throughout the season: “Woow nice win omg #wearegood”.
It took off like wildfire, but Montero hadn’t just created a brilliant hashtag. He had cemented the feeling of that one win, and thanks to their tremendous talent, the brashness borne of their youth, the powerful presence of Joe Maddon, and the remarkable, optimistic intensity of a veteran core led by Montero, the team never lost that feeling. Having guys on the wrong side of 30 who could nonetheless match the swagger and fire of Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and others is part of what made the Cubs so resilient, so irrepressible. Montero was a huge part of that.
Now, about those on-field skills, the ones I pitched you on over a year ago (and again a couple paragraphs ago): they all showed up in 2015. Montero did miss a few weeks mid-season with a thumb injury, but when healthy, he was one of the NL’s most valuable players. Because we at Baseball Prospectus bake catchers’ full defensive value into Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP), we peg Montero at 4.0 WARP for the season—42nd-most among position players. Here’s a complete list of players who played in fewer games (113) or took fewer plate appearances (403) than did Montero, and had a higher WARP:
- Giancarlo Stanton
- That’s it.
- No, really.
After years of overuse and overexposure in Arizona, Montero profited from a lot more rest in 2015. His .279 True Average was his highest since 2012. He saved 15.5 runs with his pitch framing, fifth-most in baseball, and did so in fewer framing chances than any of the four catchers ahead of him on that leaderboard. This isn’t a situation where you should pretend Montero got 10 percent more playing time, inflate his value by 10 percent, and drool over the possibilities. Maddon’s conservative deployment of Montero is a major reason for Montero’s success. Still, he was a brilliant and crucial part of the team, both intangibly and in the areas of the game that seem small but are actually vital. WARP says only Arrieta, Rizzo, and Bryant were more valuable than Montero to the Cubs in 2015, and that’s the truth of the matter.
Get ready, because after that lovely walk-off home run of a walk down memory lane, this is going to feel like an extremely icy bucket of Gatorade. Montero is going to be worse in 2016. In his last 75 plate appearances before the July injury that enforced a rest period for him, Montero hit .188/.253/.246, with two extra-base hits, six walks and 26 strikeouts. He was his usual, productive self from the time of his return through the end of the season, but then, he hit .095 in 25 playoff plate appearances, striking out 10 times and failing to crack an extra-base hit. Even given fairly light duty, in other words, he’s somewhat prone to wearing down, and that’s only going to be truer at 32 than it was at 31.
Montero also struck out at a career-worst 25.6-percent clip in 2015. Now, that was in large part a matter of choice, as he drew walks at his best rate since 2012 (12.2 percent) and had his highest isolated power (ISO, .161) since 2011. He was more aggressive, and he made certain swing adjustments aimed at maximizing his pop. The total package worked nicely. Now the question is: can he maintain the good things he got from that approach change, going forward? Or are the strikeouts going to slowly erode his offensive value?
As a good framer and a smart, strong left-handed batter, Montero still has the skills to be a useful big-league backstop. To those who would advocate donating Kyle Schwarber’s catching gear to a silent auction or trading breakout catching prospect Willson Contreras for pitching help, though, I would advise a bit more healthy skepticism. No one enjoyed the season Montero had more than I did; no one was more committed to the idea of bringing him in to begin with than I was. That doesn’t negate the fact that certain things (some foreseeable prior to 2015, some popping up as the season went along) suggest that Montero’s success was somewhat fragile. Putting all of the Cubs’ 2016 catching eggs in one basket would be unwise.
Lead photo courtesy of Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports