I’ll be honest. I was not particularly excited about Miguel Montero as a member of this team, at least on paper, heading into the 2017 season. And there was likely a significant group that figured he’d be traded at some point after his strong words about (lack of) playing time and (lack of) communication that came immediately after the Cubs’ championship parade. Coming off of a season in which Montero struggled at the plate as much as he did, with some solid defensive elements unable to compensate for those shortcomings, either school of thought would have been understandable.
Nonetheless, Montero came into the new season with a refreshed mindset and as one of the elder statesmen on a still very young ballclub. While little was expected from his offense, there was still value to be had from Montero as the team’s no. 2 backstop. His framing ability is, statistically, among the game’s best, while his ability to handle a staff, which is not as quantifiable, was enviable as well. Despite a lackluster arm from behind the plate, you tend to like a guy with Montero’s skill set as a backup catcher.
Montero’s defense isn’t in question, for the most part, and we don’t have nearly enough data to assess that element of the game anyway. As such, our purpose here is offensive in nature. Coming off of his 2016, if the Cubs were to get anything out of Montero’s bat, it’d likely be considered a bonus.
Montero was only able to notch 284 plate appearances last season due to a variety of injuries, with a back injury early in the season being most notable among them. That one seemed to have the most lasting impact on him as the season wore on. He finished with a slash that included an average of just .216, a career low, while reaching base at a clip of only .327, the second lowest mark in his career. A catcher known for providing a bit of pop, Montero saw his isolated power fall 20 points between his first and second season in Chicago, going for a .141 mark in 2016. The good news was that he did post a strikeout rate that fell relatively in line with his career average, at 20.4 percent, while walking at a rate that continued to demonstrate a quality approach, at 13.4 percent.
Interestingly enough, Montero managed to increase his contact rate from his first season with the Cubs to his second, with that figure jumping from 68.7 to 75.0 percent despite a swing rate that remained almost constant from one season to the next. Where Montero struggled wasn’t so much in making contact, but in making contact. His .249 BABIP alone indicates a guy who ran into some bad luck, but it’s far easier to hit into outs when you’re not making quality contact.
FanGraphs had Montero at a 27.0 percent hard hit rate, which would be the lowest of his career, with the exception of a 17 plate appearance season in 2006. Conversely, his 18.9 Soft% was the second highest mark of his career, while he demonstrated a pull rate that was also the second-highest figure of his career, with an obscene 42.2 percent mark. The lingering back issue likely factored in here, but a high pull rate and a high soft contact percentage isn’t a recipe for success. Hence many of Miguel Montero’s struggles in 2016.
This year has proven to be a different story, however.
We obviously have a long way to go, but there are certain trends here that definitely favor the Cubs’ no. 2 catcher moving forward. Thus far on the year, he’s off to a start that features a .394 average and a .429 OBP. His TAv is nearly 100 points higher than last year, going for a .356 mark over last year’s .257 to this point. His ISO is up to .212. He’s swinging at about the same rate, but making contact of a much higher quality. He’s gone for a 45.8 Hard% against a paltry Soft% of only 4.2 percent. Perhaps even more encouraging is the fact that that pull rate has fallen to just 29.2 percent, with more of his contact moving to the center (41.7%) and opposite side (27.6%) of the field.
Obviously, it’d be unreasonable to expect a lot of this to continue. We’re talking about a guy who only has 35 plate appearances on the season. And we’re also talking about a guy whose BABIP is all the way up at .500. His early strikeout (25.7 percent) and walk (5.7 percent) rates aren’t terribly encouraging, but will likely stabilize into what we’ve become accustomed to in his career as the season wears on. Despite the fact that virtually none of this is expected to carry on throughout the season, there are still plenty of signs of encouragement for the veteran catcher moving forward.
For Montero, health is a thing to which we can likely attribute this hot start. By virtue of his hard contact alone, that shows a massive change from last season. The center and oppo trends are also a positive for him. With the steady approach that he regularly employs, the Cubs could be in for a massive bonus, in terms of offensive performance, from Montero. Especially considering the year that he had last year.
Not that this, in any sense, means that he’ll steal starts away from Willson Contreras. Contreras is their guy, and he’ll get every opportunity to succeed in that role. But the early successes of Montero could open up the versatility of Contreras a bit to be deployed in a corner outfield spot as the season progresses, especially if the matchup plays to Montero’s strength as a left-handed hitter. For a guy who very nearly could have played, and talked, his way out of Chicago, he sure is an asset in this role now.
Lead photo courtesy Winslow Townson—USA Today Sports