Is Jesus Montero More Valuable at Catcher or DH?

There are a lot of opinions out there about the deal over the weekend that shipped Michael Pineda and prospect Jose Campos to New York in exchange for Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi. A lot of people think the Yankees got a steal, while others point to the risks associated with young arms and argue that the Mariners might have done well to transfer some of that risk to a team that could more easily live with the consequences should Pineda’s arm blow up. However, if there’s a consensus on the deal, it seems to be this – how well this deal turns out for the Mariners is directly related to how many games Montero spends behind the plate.

Everyone thinks Montero is going to be a good hitter, maybe even a great one – though, I’d suggest that if Brian Cashman really thinks he’s Mike Piazza or Miguel Cabrera, as he stated over the weekend, then he simply shouldn’t have traded him – but Montero’s been evaluated as an elite prospect based on the premise that he might be able to catch in the big leagues. After all, the average catcher hit just .245/.313/.389 last year, so having a guy behind the plate who can provide real offensive value can be a significant advantage for a Major League club. As a catcher, Montero could be the best offensive player at his position. At DH, that’s a lot less likely.

So, clearly, the upside play is to stick him behind the plate – the best possible outcome for the Mariners is that Montero’s defense improves to acceptable levels and he becomes their version of Mike Napoli, who was perhaps the key figure in the Rangers run to the World Series last year. However, looking at the potential reward of two different options is only half of the question that needs to be asked, and chasing upside is not always the correct decision. Are there reasons for the Mariners to pass on Montero as a catcher and just move him to designated hitter full time now?

The answer to that question requires us to look at a variety of different factors. We’ll start with the factor most often discussed – just how bad would Montero’s glove need to be to make the switch to DH a lateral move if that was the only variable?

From a WAR standpoint, the answer is about -30 runs per season; that is the difference in the positional adjustments between catcher (+12.5 runs) and designated hitter (-17.5 runs). And, let’s be honest, 30 runs is a huge gap, and based on things we’re currently able to measure with some degree of certainty (errors, passed balls/wild pitches, controlling the running game), it’s hard to imagine a catcher being 30 runs below average. Venus De Milo might not be 30 runs below average behind the plate based on those three things. Our own Matt Klaassen has done some work at valuing catchers based on those variables, and the worst regular catchers in baseball (last year, that would be Miguel Olivo and J.P. Arencibia) grade out as about eight runs below average. Eight runs is not 30, nor is it particularly close to it.

Still, we have to remember that there’s a pretty significant selection bias issue here – Major League teams have a pretty low tolerance for bad defensive catchers, so the guys who would grade out worse than that don’t get captured in the data – they simply don’t get the playing time required to show how bad a truly awful defensive catcher could actually be.

So, let’s try to extrapolate out from Matt’s data a little bit, and we’ll use Olivo as the example since he’s the guy that Montero would theoretically be replacing if the Mariners did choose to stick him behind the plate. Of the -8.1 defensive runs that Olivo accumulated last year, -6.7 of those were from passed balls and wild pitches. As anyone who has watched Olivo with regularity will tell you, he’s absolutely atrocious at keeping the ball in front of him. He’s led his league in passed balls in four of the last six years – last year, he finished second (to Arencibia), and he was hurt in 2008. It’s hard to imagine anyone could be worse than Olivo at this aspect of catching, so we’ll set the floor for WP/PB at -7 runs per season.

Let’s move on to errors. Because catchers just don’t make that many errors, there’s not a ton of negative value to be found here – Geovany Soto graded out as the worst in 2011, costing the Cubs -2.7 runs based on his error totals from last year. In Soto’s case, though, those were almost all throwing errors, and he was pretty much average on fielding the balls that were hit out in front of the plate. To get a better idea of how bad a truly awful all around catcher could be in this area, we should give him worst-in-the-league marks in both throwing and fielding errors (remember, this guy is supposed to be a disaster behind the plate) – doing that, we come up with -4 runs in values based on throwing and fielding errors.

So, we’re at -11 before we even get to the running game. Here, we’re going to have to do a little more extrapolating, because while A.J. Pierzynski’s throwing arm is certainly an issue for the White Sox (his 20% caught-stealing percentage cost them -7.3 runs last year), his struggles at holding the running game aren’t so severe that other teams are willing to exploit it on a daily basis; opponents ran on him 118 times last year, less often than they ran on Brian McCann, Kurt Suzuki, Russ Martin, Alex Avila, and Geovany Soto. Our hypothetical disaster catcher would be so bad that not only would he post a league worst CS%, but that his deficiencies in the area would encourage opposing baserunners to go nuts and maximize the harm his inability to stop them could inflict.

So, let’s give Disaster Catcher not only Pierzynski’s 20% caught stealing rate (Montero’s rate in the minors is 21%, for context) but also increase the rate of attempts to account for the adjustment managers would make in playing against him. This isn’t the kind of thing we can definitively quantify, so you can pick how many SB attempts you think is reasonable, but I’ll go with 175 – it’s about 30% higher than the most frequently run on catchers from a year ago. So, a 20% CS rate on 175 attempts would result in 140 successful stolen bases and 35 caught stealings. A caught stealing costs the running team about 0.5 runs, while a successful attempt generates about 0.25 runs in value, so a catcher who threw out 35 of 175 baserunners would be worth about -18 runs through his inability to stop the running game.

If you add it all up (-7 from PB/WP, -4 from errors, and -18 from SB/CS), you get a catcher who would be 29 runs below average. So, the theoretical catcher who is the worst in the league at each of these three areas would still seem to gain no value from moving to DH. Thus, any player capable of squatting behind the plate and not being a total embarrassment should remain at catcher, yes?

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Catcher defense is more than just blocking pitches, avoiding errors, and gunning down opposing baserunners. Those might be the only things we’re all that comfortable quantifying today, but good work is being done to further our understanding of the rest of the things catchers do behind the plate. Bojan Koprivica’s piece on blocking pitches is one of the best articles anyone in our community has published in a while, and Mike Fast has published some potentially groundbreaking research on pitch framing. While the work is still in its early stages, it would be foolish to assume that all catchers are actually equal in all regards that we can’t measure that well to date, and these pieces show that we may not be that far away from being able to understand why teams have been so reluctant to stick with bad defensive catchers, even in light of the large potential offensive rewards.

If Disaster Catcher was also a below average pitch framer, for instance, his negative value behind the plate would then be higher than the position adjustment difference catcher and DH. He’d actually be more valuable not playing defense than trying and failing at the most demanding position ont he diamond – the same conclusion teams have been coming to for years about guys with this skillset.

There are other factors beyond defensive value that also need to be considered – specifically, the expectations of offensive development for a catcher and a non-catcher, as well as the long term health issues related to the physical demands of catching.

In regards to offensive levels (and I’ll try to make this brief, since this piece is already running quite long), it has been clearly observed that players hit worse when asked to catch than they do when they’re asked to play any other position on the field. The energy required to put on a suit or armor and squat behind the plate for three hours has a tangible effect on how well a player performs at the plate, and being freed from that burden increases offensive output. The depressed offensive performances from catchers aren’t simply about a weaker talent pool, but are also directly related to the physical toll of the effort required to play the position. If the Mariners decide to keep Montero behind the plate, they should expect a lower level of offensive performance than if they move him to DH. The amount of the surge differs for each player that is moved to another position (some players can handle the load better than others before wearing down), but it is generally estimated to be in the +5 to +10 run per season range. We’ve also observed that DHs hit worse than when they play a non-catcher position on the field, so the effect would be smaller by moving him there than if they put him at first base, but there’d still be an uptick in offensive performance if he had to turn in tools of ignorance.

Finally, there’s the issues related to career longevity. Even for those who can hold up to the rigors of catching, the position shortens their careers. Knees wear down, backs give out, they get run over at the plate… there are a litany of reasons why catchers simply don’t age as well as players at other positions. In fact, it’s a rare site to see a catcher remain productive past age 32 or so, as the position is simply a young man’s game.

When faced with the decision of whether a team should keep a premium hitter behind the plate, career length has to be taken into account. The Mariners acquired Montero with the hopes that he would become a franchise hitter, and if he develops as expected, they’ll be exploring a long term contract with him within a couple of seasons. Even if they believe that Montero would provide maximum value behind the plate, they’d have to factor in the long term value they’d expect to receive if he was moved to DH that they wouldn’t get if he stayed behind the plate.

While the value of future year performances need to be discounted to some degree, those years represent some amount of value to the franchise. If Montero can play an extra three seasons from ages 32-34 at a +3 win level because he didn’t thrash his knees in his early 20s, those +9 wins of value need to be accounted for. How many future wins would you give up to increase his value from a +3 win player to a +4 win player in the present? The answer is different for each franchise, based on their spot on the win-curve and their financial situation, but the Mariners are clearly not in win-now mode, so maximizing Montero’s on-field value in 2012 probably shouldn’t be their top priority.

We’re 2,000 words into this, so I’ll wrap this up as quickly as I can, but I think that what we know about baseball – and perhaps more importantly, what we realize that we don’t know – requires us to realize that deciding Montero’s future value isn’t as simple as quoting position scarcity and talking about the value of a good hitting catcher.

If Montero is a truly awful defensive catcher, as most scouts seem to suggest, it seems fair to assume that his glove could cost the Mariners in excess of 15 runs per season behind the plate. When you add in the extra offensive value that would be gained from moving him out from behind the plate and the long term effects of not having his body wear down from catching, then the expected value going forward from either decision seems to be defensible.

If you think Montero can be better than the worst defensive catcher in baseball, it is probably worth taking the risk on trying him behind the plate and evaluating further – the Rangers are certainly happy they did so with Napoli after the Angels gave up on him beind the plate, after all. However, if you believe that Montero’s physical limitations will prevent him from being decent behind the plate, then moving him to DH now might very well be the right decision.

This isn’t an open and shut case. There are reasonable arguments to be made for either decision – let’s just be willing to acknowledge that a lot more should go into the decision than simply pointing at how awesome Montero’s offensive value could be relative to the average catcher. Frank Thomas‘ bat would have been amazing relative to other shortstops, too, but Major League teams had good reasons for not putting him there.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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10 years ago

You discuss the effect of career longevity but what about number of games per season? I would think that as a DH Montero would be able to play more games than if he played the majority of his games as a catcher. Or is this covered in the +5 to +10 adjustment for not playing catching? I guess what I’m asking is the +5 to +10 adjustment based on equal playing time or does it assume that the player will have more PAs at a position other than catcher?

10 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

Unless there is a way to quantify for the average wear and tear a catcher received throughout the year, and the number of games he could reasonably be expected to need fully off in order to recover.

Nathaniel Dawson
10 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

How does that scenario play out for the Mariners bench? If you have a catcher that DH’s 30 games a year, is only one other catcher good enough? Most managers don’t like having only one catcher available to them for a game, no matter how unlikely an unfortunate situation comes up. Are the Mariners going to be okay with no catcher on the bench for 30+ games? If they decide they need to carry three catchers, what does that do for their flexibility at other positions?

Barkey Walker
10 years ago
Reply to  Dave Cameron

I don’t recall Mauer having a season where he got in 150 games. I think he is more of a 140 G type player (when healthy). I think there is more wear and tear that you are admitting to there.