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Jesus Returns

The Mariners made three roster moves last night; of those three, two of the players called up got in the game (Danny Farquhar and Vidal Nuno). However, the player garnering the most attention is Jesus Montero.

Jesus Montero
(Wikimedia Commons, Keith Allison)
Officially the Mariners optioned J.A. Happ to make room for Jesus. In reality, Happ wasn't going to pitch again until after the All-Star break, so really the Mariners are just abusing the schedule to get an extra position player on the roster for this series against the Angels. I fully expect Montero to go back down to Tacoma in the near future.

However, Montero joins a Mariners offense that has sputtered for the vast majority of the year, and he is a AAA all-star slated to participate in the AAA home run derby. Montero also has the "fallen star" status, if you will - a guy everyone thought would hit, then didn't, then had a series of embarrassments last year ranging from reporting to camp way overweight to throwing an ice cream sandwich at a Mariners scout. Now, he's in the best shape of his tenuous Mariners career and slugging away in Tacoma. It's easy to see why Montero feels intriguing. Maybe put better it's easy to see why so many fans want to believe Montero will hit in the majors. It would complete a classic narrative - hot prospect, falls down on his luck, rededicates himself and surges to become what he was always supposed to be. Nothing changes and yet he is transformed from a boy to a man in the process.

That and dingers. Fans might also be happy because Jesus Montero would hit lots of dingers in this scenario.

Since I go to more Rainiers games than Mariners games, I have seen Jesus Montero play quite a bit the last season and a half. Come to think of it, I might have seen him play more than anyone else in the past year and a half. Here are some things you ought to know about Montero 2.0:
  1. Don't be fooled by the triples. Montero is still slow. Inexplicably Montero has five triples this year. I saw his only triple at home in Cheney Stadium. It was a rocket out to deep left-center field, where the wall is 425 feet from home plate. I can't say for sure how the other triples have happened, because Cheney's center field is the most unforgiving in the PCL. I would imagine they were hard-hit balls over the outfielder's heads that kicked off walls away from defenders. So, though Montero's footspeed leaves much to be desired, the triples say something about Montero's hitting.
  2. Montero has a new identity as a hitter. He came to Seattle with a well-earned reputation as a "pure" hitter with plus power because his line drives soared out of the ballpark. In particular, Montero got high marks for his opposite field power. That hitter disappeared in Seattle and was replaced with a fair number of weak groundouts thanks to an obsession for pulling the ball. Montero has played with his batting stance a fair amount, and midway through last season switched to a radically different open stance. It seems to have made a difference. This year, for the first time in his career, he is hitting more fly balls than ground balls, with a ground-out to air-out ratio of 0.77. For his minor league career, that ratio is 1.31, so this is noteworthy switch. Batted ball data like this tends to regress fairly quickly. That big of a gap suggests a different hitting profile. This is a switch which helps Montero take advantage of his best tool (power) while hiding his worst tool (speed). It might be the best reason to believe he will perform better in the majors now than before.
  3. Montero swings at almost everything. Jesus Montero has struck out in 18% of his plate appearances this year, while walking in a shade under 6% of them. It is very easy to believe these numbers even after watching only a few Montero plate appearances in Tacoma. Pitch location and pitch type data isn't as readily accessible for minor league games, so I can't go much further with this analysis. The strikeout rate is high, but not so high to think that Montero will fail as a hitter in the majors given his power. However, that strikeout rate combined with the walk rate tells a more alarming story. I'm not convinced that MLB pitchers will have to throw Montero strikes to get him to swing. This is the biggest reason to believe Montero will struggle in the majors, and it's a mighty big one.
In the end, this is a medium-length post about almost nothing. I doubt Jesus Montero gets many at-bats before going back down to AAA. I also doubt that he's in a position to contribute any more than current Mariners. He is likely to strikeout a ton with a low average, low on-base percentage, and some home runs thrown in. Montero probably falls somewhere between Mark Trumbo and Mike Zunino as far as what we could expect from him if he played regularly.

I think Montero's promotion has more to do with symbolism and psychology. Montero could be out of baseball right now. Last season was that disastrous and it seemed fairly clear that the Mariners were down to their last straw with him. Montero buckled down and clearly worked hard in the offseason. He is also producing, albeit against AAA pitchers in a way that suggests MLB pitcher might take advantage of him. Still, Montero was slaying AAA pitching with some authority last year before his season completely fell off the rails. This promotion back to the bigs has to feel like a real sign of his hard work paying off. Plus, who knows, maybe Edgar Martinez can convince Montero to work some on his plate discipline, which would go a long ways towards Montero developing into a viable option at first base.