The Mariners stuck with it for 735 innings. Despite the fact that nearly everyone in baseball agreed that Jesus Montero could not catch at an acceptable level in the Major Leagues, the Mariners let him try for the equivalent of a half season spread out over eight painful months. Now, it seems like the organization is accepting the reality that Jesus Montero is not, and will never be, a Major League catcher. As of today, he isn’t even a Major League player.
The Mariners are swapping out Jesuses in their backup catcher role — Montero had already lost the starting gig to vaunted superstar Kelly Shoppach — by replacing Montero with Jesus Sucre, the polar opposite of Montero as a player. Sucre is a no-bat defensive specialist, but given Montero’s struggles on both sides of the plate, a non-prospect catch-and-throw backup is probably an upgrade at this point.
So, with Montero back in Triple-A for the foreseeable future, I figured it would be a good time to re-do an exercise we did with Montero 17 months ago, when he was first traded from New York to Seattle. At that point, we walked through a list of comparable bat-first prospects who reached the Majors at an early age, noting that players of this type have turned into superstars, but that the median forecast based on similar prospects called for Montero to turn into a good hitter, not a great one. I ended that piece with the following paragraphs:
The upside for Montero to be a Cabrera, Piazza, or Fielder is real. However, history suggests that it is not the only path, or even the most likely one, for Montero to take. There have been a lot of prospects who received similar accolades for their offensive potential who have handled the upper levels of the minors at young ages as well. We’ve identified two dozen of them here, and the median slash line from this group was .281/.349/.491, good for a 117 wRC+.
That’s a nice hitter, but it’s not the kind of bat you can build a franchise around. For Montero to reach the upper tier, he’s simply going to have to show a bit more selectivity at the plate, and adapt to facing a good number of pitches out of the zone. If he makes that leap and improves his command of the strike zone, he could be a monster. But we need to recognize that it’s still an if, not a when. Some guys never figure that out, and if Montero doesn’t either, he’ll settle in as a good hitter rather than a great one.
To this point, Montero has not yet made that adjustment. He swings at pitches out of the strike zone far too often, and his aggressive approach greatly limits his ability to get into fastball counts and sit on a pitch he can hammer. Right now, Jesus Montero is not a very good hitter, and as a guy who has zero Major League skills besides hitting, that’s a problem. But, at the same time, he’s 23-years-old, and as Rob Neyer noted today, there are examples of very similar players being terrible through age-23 and then developing after they moved out from behind the plate. In fact, Rob’s example — Carlos Delgado — made our original list of comparisons for Montero, so it might be useful to look at the other players we identified as Montero comparisons and see how they’d done through the same point in their careers.
So, here’s that same list of players we used in that post in January of 2012. Two dozen top prospects, almost all of whom hit well enough to get promoted to the big leagues at age 20 or 21, who were considered potential superstars because of their offensive prowess. Only this time, we’ve added Montero to make the list 25 names long, so you can see where he stacks up, and instead of showing career numbers, we’re going to present just their performance through their age-23 season.
Pretty much without exception, the guys who turned into elite hitters were already good big league hitters by age-23. A-Rod and Vlad didn’t draw walks, but they made a lot of contact and hit for power. The rest of them showed approaches beyond their experience level, and all hit for a bunch of power too. At this point, it seems silly to keep comparing Montero to guys like Cabrera or Manny, because they were dominant Major League sluggers at the point at which Montero is getting shipped back to Triple-A to remember how to hit.
But, there are some late bloomers on that list too. Aramis Ramirez put up numbers that were nearly identical to Montero’s current line once you adjust for the differences in league averages and the ballparks they played in. Aramis Ramirez has gone to become a very good hitter, posting a 122 wRC+ since the start of his age-24 season. Ramirez never really learned how to take a walk, but he improved his contact rate significantly and started hitting for even more power as he got older, and that helped him develop into an offensive force even without being very selective.
And, of course, there’s Delgado, who was already mentioned. He put up a 137 wRC+ after his age-23 season, and his early performance was even worse than Montero’s. But, we should note that Delgado’s performance was driven by a .220 BABIP, and that he did show the power and patience skills that would allow him to become a dominant hitter later. His breakout at age-24 was essentially a BABIP correction, and Montero hasn’t had that same kind of issue driving down his offensive performance.
Among all of the guys who were below average Major League hitters through age-23, here is how they did in the Majors starting with their age-24 season:
Mike Piazza: 141 wRC+
Carlos Delgado: 137 wRC+
Aramis Ramirez: 122 wRC+
Shawn Green: 121 wRC+
Adrian Beltre: 116 wRC+
Vernon Wells: 107 wRC+
Delmon Young: 100 wRC+
Karim Garcia: 90 wRC+
Andy Marte: 71 wRC+
This list confirms what Neyer noted this morning; it is too early to give up on Jesus Montero’s bat. Even if we discount the Delgado example a little bit and note that Piazza didn’t really get an opportunity until age-24, you still have some pretty decent hitters like Ramirez, Green, and Beltre as similarly slow starters who eventually did develop into good hitters.
Unfortunately, guys like Green and Beltre became good players in part because they played quality defense and ran the bases well. Montero is likely going to be one of the worst defenders and baserunners in baseball for as long as he’s playing the sport. The entirety of his value is going to come from his bat, and even a 122 wRC+ from a DH doesn’t make him that special of a player. Basically, his only path to living up to the hype is hitting like Delgado, and he hasn’t yet shown the same skills that Delgado showed through age-23.
Getting released from the tools of ignorance should help Montero, as he can stop focusing on trying to become a terrible defensive catcher instead of a disaster behind the plate, and there is some evidence of catching taking a toll on a player’s offensive performance. Of course, there’s also evidence that DHing takes a toll on a player’s offensive performance, so it’s not like moving from C to DH is automatically going to result in Montero mashing the baseball.
But, history does warn against writing off this kind of prospect prematurely. There are other guys who have had similar struggles at the big league level and still turned into good hitters. There is also, however, Delmon Young, Karim Garcia, and Andy Marte. While those guys represented just a small portion of our original list of comparisons, they’re now a much more prominent part of the Montero comparisons. And we can’t ignore the fact that guys like Young, with similar pedigrees and similar skillsets, have just never improved and remain valueless end-of-roster scrubs.
Don’t give up on Jesus Montero. Don’t even completely give up on Jesus Montero becoming a really good hitter. But it is worth noting that his stagnant development paints a significantly weaker picture of the future than we saw a year and change ago, and at this point, Montero’s likely outcome if he develops is probably that of an average DH. As we evaluate similar prospects going forward, it is helpful to remember that forecasting offensive superstardom should not be done lightly, and if a player absolutely has to hit at a high level in order to be a valuable piece, he’s probably not an elite prospect after all.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.