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Jesus Montero's fall from grace shows just how far he has to go

Once a unanimous top-10 prospect, Jesus Montero is on the outs in Seattle. Where did it all go wrong?

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Stop me if you've heard this before: A prospect shoots up publications' rankings, tearing through the minor leagues without ever looking back. After reaching the top level, capitalizing on years of hard work, they find relative success the first stint through and are decent enough the second time around.

But, that's the pinnacle. Their career is a shadow of their past. They show a glimpse here and there of the potential that once was, only to regress back quickly. They get demoted, crush it in the minors, and recalled to lower expectations and more disappointment, until they are ultimately let go and labeled as a bust.

This is the story of Jesus Montero.

One of the top prospects in the game, and a sure thing by many accounts, Montero cruised through the New York Yankees' minor league system with easy power and a penchant for knowing the strike zone. He debuted on Baseball America's Top 100 in 2009 at No. 38, coming off a .326/.376/.491 season with 17 home runs, supported by a .391 wOBA during his age-18 season. After another season of wrecking High-A and Double-A pitching, Montero was Baseball America's No. 4 prospect entering 2010. He ranked No. 3 in 2011 and fell to No. 6 in 2012.

On Sunday, Montero was placed on waivers by the Seattle Mariners and reportedly claimed by the Toronto Blue Jays. It's been a long fall for the former unanimous top-10 prospect, producing a pedestrian career slash line of .253/.295/.398 without the power or plate discipline he was touted for as a prospect.

With the gift of hindsight, that 2010-2012 span offered a slight glimpse into Montero's future that, at the time, we might have considered an aberration for a young hitter.

Season Team PA BB% K% ISO wOBA wRC+
2007 Yankees (R) 123 9.8% 14.6% .140 .373 126
2008 Yankees (A) 569 6.5% 14.6% .166 .390 143
2009 Yankees (A+) 198 7.1% 13.1% .228 .447 185
2009 Yankees (AA) 181 7.8% 11.6% .222 .406 152
2010 Yankees (AAA) 504 9.1% 18.1% .227 .376 133
2011 Yankees (AAA) 463 7.8% 21.2% .179 .357 121

In 2010, his wOBA began to decline, but more worrisome was that it sharply slid in his second stint in Triple-A the next year, as did his ISO. An increased strikeout rate in 2010 compared to his career norm didn't immediately raise many red flags, but another significant jump in 2011 should have.

Nonetheless, he was promoted, and in 69 plate appearances with the Yankees Montero trended toward a three-outcome hitter. He produced an ISO of .262, a wOBA of .422, a wRC+ of 166, and had a 24.6 percent strikeout rate and a career-best 10.1 percent walk rate. Aside from another multi-percentage strikeout jump, there was all the reason to be bullish on Montero. And Seattle was bullish enough to trade top prospects, sending Michael Pineda to the Yankees for Montero. At the time, Seattle was the unanimous winner of that trade considering Montero's prospect pedigree and sparkling scouting reports.

Entering 2012, ESPN's Keith Law raved about Montero's advanced approach at the plate and compared him to Frank Thomas, but the prospect didn't exactly deliver his first year with the Mariners. His strikeout rate dropped dramatically to 17.9 percent, but so did his walk rate (5.2 percent), wOBA (.295),  ISO (.126), and wRC+ (90). From here we know the rest of the story. Montero struck out more, walked less, and never hit for power or average at the major league level.

After returning to some of his old form in Triple-A last year, Montero soon tempered renewed faith in 116 Seattle plate appearances in 2015. Though his power returned to a more average level, he struck out (27.6 percent) and walked (3.4 percent) at career-worst rates, and a similar spring effort in 2016 ultimately marked the end of his time in Seattle.

But what caused Montero's declining numbers and eventual fall from prospect grace? Most simply, as a major league hitter, he never made enough contact.

Season Team O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr%
2011 Yankees 32.8% 56.6% 44.1% 61.4% 81.2% 73.5% 11.4%
2012 Mariners 38.3% 66.3% 51.4% 65.5% 88.9% 79.7% 10.3%
2013 Mariners 30.9% 65.8% 47.9% 52.5% 84.9% 74.2% 12.6%
2014 Mariners 50.0% 55.2% 52.5% 62.5% 81.3% 71.9% 14.8%
2015 Mariners 49.3% 73.5% 60.1% 61.5% 80.0% 71.6% 16.9%

The only year he bordered league average contact rates was in 2012 (79.7 percent), which explains his dramatic decrease in strikeouts. As a baseline, league average contact has been between 79-80 percent in the above years, and swinging strike rates (SwStr%) were the 9 percent range.

Evidence of his overall approach eroding is also found in the table above. In 2011, Montero was below the league average swing rate (46.2 percent); despite a lower contact rate, he was still selective, though he chased a higher rate of pitches outside the zone. For a 21 year old in his first taste of big league pitching, none of those figures was entirely unusual. But 2013 aside, every other stint in Seattle produced swing rates at least 5.4 percent above league average; which, when combined with below-average contact rates, is a toxic combination.

Not satisfied with the easy answer, I looked at how Montero fared against certain pitches, hypothesizing that he struggled against everything but the straight fastball. That was a correct assumption to a point.

His heat maps for swings and misses support that hypothesis and give us a better look at where exactly Montero never adjusted:

Montero heat maps

The middle zone profile shows fastball contact with the bulk of swings and misses pared down to a few spots: high, outside, and in on his hands. Not uncommon locations for lumbering power hitters. The other two charts show a large cluster of swings and misses on breaking and off-speed pitches. As data have become more accessible and utilized by teams during Montero's brief career, failing to adjust to such a large amount of offerings and locations has made him more easily exploitable by opposing game plans.

From here, determining the future of Montero is tough. He's only 26, and Toronto has a fairly successful history of getting something out of hitters at this point in their careers (see: Chris Colabello's BABIP-fueled 2015). Seattle doesn't have the best reputation for developing hitters, so landing in the right situation could benefit Montero before it's over.

But as we can see from his approach and lack of success against off-speed/breaking pitches, Montero's overhaul is going to be monumental, even to bring him back to a regular bench bat. He's been a declining hitter against lefties, which cuts back on his chances to platoon. Entering a hitter's haven in Toronto is a plus, but can they improve his contact enough to matter?

One thing is for sure: Montero isn't the 30-home-run prodigy he was four years ago. He's fighting for his baseball career.

. . .

Jerry Burnes is a contributor Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @jerryburnes.