Jesus Montero hit .260 amid starting 70 games within the confines of the most hostile of offensive atmospheres, Safeco Field, in his first full season of baseball. And yet from the things that have been said of his overall season you would imagine he finished anywhere other than first overall on his team in batting average for players over 500+ plate appearances. I am not saying that the Seattle Mariners were the benchmark for batting average but the 2012 season was far from a hitter's paradise in many regards. The National League batting crown was captured at .336, the third lowest total since Gary Sheffield hit .330 in 1992, while the runner-up average of .327 was the second lowest in its category since 1992. The American League batting crown mark was .330, the fifth lowest total since 1972 when Rod Carew hit .318, while the runner-up at .326 was fourth lowest in his category since 1990. Don't like history? 21 current or former All-Stars over 500+ plate appearances in 2012 hit .260 or below. Only five of these 21 players hit over 25 home runs on the season which eliminates the thought process that the majority were power producers. Not impressed? Let me remind you that Montero was just 22 years of age throughout the 2012 season and became just the 108th player in the past decade to record over 500 plate appearances in his rookie season.
Dave Cameron of Fangraphs said of Montero late into the season, "He's just not close to being a useful big league player." He continued of Montero's September, "No real sign of improvement anywhere." Montero hit .245/.281/.376 in the first half with a .657 OPS. In the second half he showed marked improvement in all slash line categories hitting .278/.318/.398 with a .716 OPS including a .278/.309/.344 September. He recorded the same amount of hits (67) in both halves of the season, playing in 11 less games the second time around. He showed great improvement in his eye at the plate and pitch recognition improving from a 4.78 strikeout to walk (67/14) ratio the first half of the season to a 2.13 K/BB (32/15) ratio in the second half. Montero's season was more than the story of two-halves, however, his season is best described against those most similar to him, his environment and development as not only a catcher but as a designated hitter.
If you are tired of hearing about the negative park factors that Safeco Field presents to hitters than you are in luck. I will take a different path in explaining why Seattle is a dangerous place for rookies to progress at the plate.
I don't think it can be argued that the three things a team must do to interrupt a pitcher on the mound is reach base, avoid the strikeout, and hit the ball. PACE is a statistic for pitchers that measures the amount of time between pitches to the plate. PACE says that the average pitcher takes longer between pitches as ‘situational stress' increases, such as runners in scoring position. Not executing the three things above puts the pitcher in a position where they control the strike zone, the base paths, and each individual at-bat put in front of them. There were a total of eight rookies in Major League Baseball this season that totaled over 500 plate appearances, six of which recorded a higher batting average than Jesus Montero. Of the seven other rookies on our list none of them played for a team that finished below the Major League average for walks, strikeouts, and batting average; the only exception being Montero. What does it all mean? It means that it's very hard to hit a pitchers ‘A' game through 162 games a season, especially at 22 years old.
Prior to the 2012 season Montero recalled a conversation he and his father had in Venezuela while he was growing up. They were watching the Mariners on TV with Edgar Martinez at the plate, 'You're going to see me on TV one day,'" he told his father, "I'm going to be like [Martinez] one day, hitting the ball to right field." A bold statement for two reasons; Martinez is a legend in Venezuela and he was 11 years old. Now 11 years later, Montero, a product of Venezuelan baseball like Martinez is in Seattle and has a chance to chase his hero throughout Mariner record books. To quote Martin Luther King, which is something I never thought I would do in a sports piece, "Nothing worthwhile is gained without sacrifice." One thing Montero may have to sacrifice on his journey to becoming a Major League slugger is one of his favorite things; being a full-time catcher.
"I can't wait to be catching in the big leagues over here, to get more of an opportunity to show everybody that I can catch here," Montero said prior to his rookie season in Seattle. He would go on to throw out 11 of 65 runners (17%) this season placing him eight percent below the league average for the season. He has been dinged since his time in the Yankees minor league system for his inability to frame pitches around the plate with consistency. It has been said that catchers develop late but many baseball analysts wonder if accepting his place as a starting designated hitter would help speed up his development at the plate.
No player wants to be labeled as a designated hitter. All baseball players want to contribute with their gloves and with their bats each time they take field. The life of a designated hitter is that of a clubhouse presence rather than a full-time fielder. That is quite the mental transition to make in a society that preaches fielding and five-tool athletes in baseball. The DH in many dugouts sets the tone off the field, is the first to greet a teammate as they return from their plate appearance, and the first to pat a pitcher on the back after he is pulled from the game. I for one do not understand why the baseball community as a whole praises those who pinch hit regularly but looks down on those who are designated to hit. Settling into the mental mind-set of either role is very similar in that your glove and athleticism plays not into the outcome of the game but your resolve to deliver when called upon is nearly identical. That negative feeling towards the DH position is no better described than by baseball great Tony Gwynn, "It's great for players who've had success in the game, but maybe can't take the grind of playing a full season at the end of their careers." But the truth is that it's been done at a young age by a significant group of ball players and differs from the perceived view of fans. In the past 40 years there have only been four baseball players who have received over 40% of their playing time during their rookie season from the designated hitter position; take a look:
|Player (Age)||Plate Appearances||Batting Average||On-Base Percentage||BABIP||K/BB||HR||RBI|
|Billy Butler (20)||290||.286||.338||.322||2.45||8||45|
|Jesus Montero (22)||321||.226||.265||.265||4.06||5||30|
|John Olerud (21)||352||.258||.350||.296||1.50||10||38|
|Eddie Murray (21)||473||.285||.334||.299||2.15||20||60|
|Player (Age)||Plate Appearances||Batting Average||On-Base Percentage||BABIP||K/BB||HR||RBI|
|Billy Butler (20)||64||.316||.390||.352||0.85||0||6|
|Jesus Montero (22)||230||.310||.343||.331||2.92||10||32|
|John Olerud (21)||65||.308||.446||.300||0.62||4||9|
|Eddie Murray (21)||189||.283||.333||.308||2.28||7||28|
The first table represents the stats each player recorded at the plate in their rookie seasons while starting as the designated hitter while the second table displays what the players did while starting from a fielding position. For reference the seasons in question are 1977 (Eddie Murray), 1990 (John Olerud), 2007 (Billy Butler), and 2012 (Jesus Montero).
The significance of both tables ties back into the mentality of the position and adapting to the designated hitter role, which is surely made harder at such a young age. With the exception of Eddie Murray, the players in the tables above each well outperformed themselves when hitting from a fielding position. These three hitters not only showed a greater ability to get on base when playing from the field but showed better plate aptitude shown in their K/BB ratios. Call it what you will. I believe the tables above amount to an explanation that adjusting to the designated hitter role is one of the toughest moves in baseball. As Yogi Berra said, "Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical." Maybe that isn't the best explanation of what I am getting at but you see where I am going. Mentally one half-inning you are a designated hitter and the next half-inning mentally you are rooting your teammates on from the dugout. That's a big switch to ask a 22 year old to flip day in and day out.
I would expect the organization to make an extra effort this off-season, most likely in Spring Training, to get Edgar Martinez and Jesus Montero some time together. If you can remember, Martinez has been a guest coach in camp for the Mariners along with other former players since retiring from professional baseball.
Should you as a Seattle Mariners fan be worried about Montero's development? My answer is absolutely not.
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