The Beatles had George Harrison. Late 1990s Saturday Night Live had Tim Meadows. The 2015-2016 Cubs have Miguel Montero. It seems unavoidable that every great institution has a forgotten contributor. That is, a member of the organization who, upon initial consideration, would not be mentioned as the most valuable, indispensable, or aesthetically pleasing to watch. Be it with casual fans or experts, the name comes a ways down the list of most discussed or celebrated.
Without this person, however, the institution is not as strong. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” might not have been written. A versatile cast member capable of shining in both the “ten-to-one” sketch (Dr. Poop) and the first sketch after the monologue (Leon Phelps, The Ladies Man) would be absent. And, as it relates to this piece, the Cubs would not have one of the three or four best offensive catchers in the National League.
From October through these dog days of Cactus Ball, our writers have spent thousands upon thousands of words, questionable puns, and strained pop cultural references on stars like Kris Bryant, Jake Arrieta, and Anthony Rizzo, and even role players like Jason Hammel and Travis Wood. We wrote about potential offseason acquisitions, followed by countless pieces on the arrival and impact of big names in free agency, all while discussing whether the sophomore superstars would progress or regress from their rookie campaigns.
One significant contributor, though, seemed conspicuously absent from the conversation, among the national media, #CubsTwitter, and even in our swanky BP Wrigleyville online hangouts. That player was Montero. For a “writer “in the midst of an idea block that had him one step from pitching “What would happen if the 2015 Cubs played the Cubs team from Rookie of the Year ?“, it was an exciting revelation, but also one that was slightly depressing. It seemed crazy he could be missing from our dialogue.
After all, this was the starting catcher for a team that won 97 games. Montero was the sixth best position player by bWARP (3.9). His walk rate was second highest on the team, and he saw the fifth most pitches per plate appearance. Among NL catchers, he finished in the top three in bWARP, home runs, ISO, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, OPS, and walk rate. And from late April through mid June (about a quarter of the season), Montero was arguably the team’s best offensive player, hitting six of his 15 home runs, posting an .862 OPS (.200 ISO) and a 16 percent walk rate.
Throughout much of the season, Montero looked nearly every bit the player he was for the Arizona Diamondbacks from 2009-2012, when he hit .283/.361/.457, and averaged just under five wins per season by bWARP, including 6.2 in 2012. This was a substantial upgrade for the Cubs, as from 2011-2014, the catching position was an offensive black hole. In the four seasons prior to Montero’s arrival, Cubs catchers lagged way behind their NL counterparts at the plate:
Replacing that “production” with one of the league’s best offensive receivers was a boon to President Epstein’s regime, as they bought low on a player on the other side of 30 coming off of two down seasons. Of all the shrewd moves, or just outright robberies, they have pulled off in the past 4.5 years, this ranks among the criminally underrated.
This site has done a good job of detailing how Montero returned to form in 2015. Matt Trueblood’s article earlier this week detailed the return of Montero’s opposite field power that resulted from improved plate coverage and discipline. In July, I rambled on about Montero mashing sinkers, the pitch he’s consistently seen with the second highest frequecy, at rates similar to his four-season peak (.643 slugging percentage from 2009-2012, .667 in 2015). As we detail a few paragraphs below, there is solid reasons to expect him to repeat last season’s production.
Beyond the stats (which is a phrase I don’t employ often), though, Montero should be a topic of conversation for what he represented for last year’s team. Remember back to spring 2015, when there was no Jason Heyward or Ben Zobrist in the starting lineup? When it came to the everyday players, it was Montero, Fowler, Chris Coghlan and the kids. When writing about Montero’s (and Fowler’s) first half impact for last season’s BP Wrigleyville Mid-Season Digital Magazine, I asserted the following:
Montero & Fowler are more than just an amazing title for a late 1980’s buddy cop show that would have aired after L.A. Law. (“This week on Montero & Fowler, Montero thinks Fowler might be getting too deep undercover…”). Neither will be All-Stars, long-term fixtures for the Cubs at their respective positions, or part of awards conversation, but both have brought stability and above league average production to positions lacking either or both during Epstein’s organizational rebuilding.
Montero…brought dependability and production to… [a] position not yet ready to be manned by the young guns.
He was an experienced, veteran presence on a team with a first year manager and a handful of talented, yet unproven rookies. That’s not to overrate his presence by suggesting Montero possessed some type of mystical intangibles. It simply means that on a team where a majority of the best position players were 25 and under, he was a known commodity who had been through losing streaks, rebounded from 0-for-4’s, and performed at an All-Star level. To me, with a clubhouse full of young guys looking to veteran players for how things are done, that can only be a positive. There’s reason to celebrate that. Hell, in the span of two weeks last September, Rian Watt and myself combined spent about 5,000 words detailing the effect David Ross has on a clubhouse and pitching staff, and he started just 46 games, or roughly 40 percent of Montero’s work behind the plate.
Looking ahead to 2016, PECOTA expects some regression for Montero, with a slightly above-league-average .263 TAv, which would fall about six percent below 2015’s .279. That’s not terribly shocking for a 32-year-old backstop who should catch his 1,000th career game this season. Montero’s 2.6 bWARP, however, is still projected to be good for eighth on the team. Do not be surprised, though, if he approaches or matches last season’s numbers.
After all, Montero finished strong in August and September (.277/.358/.438), posted a BABIP (.306) that matched his career average, and showed bat speed that allowed him to destroy fastballs and hit the ball with power to the opposite field He’s followed this up with an encouraging spring at the plate, producing five walks and seven extra base hits in 36 plate appearances.
In 2016, expect Montero to be Montero, which might not make him the most valuable or talked about Cubs player, but is an ideal fit on a team with World Series aspirations. Montero might not ever reach More Cowbell or Barry Gibb Talk Show status, but to be honest, I always preferred The Ladies Man. So, let’s crank up “What Is Life”, pour some courvoisier, and salute Miguel Montero’s contributions.
Lead photo courtesy Jake Roth—USA Today Sports.