One of the surprises of Grapefruit League play is former top prospect Rafael Montero. After looking like a guy who should be released during the majority of the 2016 season, Montero has been having a rather successful Spring in his effort to make the club as a reliever. He has 17 Ks in 11.1 IP, for a surprising 13.5 K%. In the previous five years, there have been 58 Mets pitchers to amass at least 10 IP during a Grapefruit League season. The highest K% of those 58 is the 11.7 rate posted by Jeurys Familia. It’s safe to say that after last year’s debacle, Montero’s strikeouts have caught everyone off guard this Spring.
However, at this point, there are certain things we know about Montero and impressive strikeout numbers in March don’t change these.
1. His fastball is not overpowering and does not have enough movement.
2. Unlike other Mets pitchers, he has not learned the Warthen Slider and his breaking ball also does not have enough movement.
3. He doesn’t change speeds enough to keep people off his fastball.
4. His walk totals have been too high.
How did we get here? How did we go from top prospect to a guy who might make the Opening Day roster as the extra reliever if Familia is suspended to start the season? Unfortunately, the answer is not as cut and dried as the four issues defined above. Without the benefit of video analysis of his time climbing the minor league ladder, all we can do is speculate. But before getting to speculation, let’s spend a bit more time in the realm of the known.
The Mets’ Double-A affiliate has been in Binghamton for a long time. We can go back many years and compare Montero’s results in Double-A to other Mets pitchers. Going back to 2011, the year Matt Harvey pitched in Binghamton, and using a cutoff of 59.2 innings pitched – Harvey’s total – there have been 47 pitchers to reach our minimum. Montero’s 2.00 FIP in 2013 was the best mark of all of those pitchers. And by a wide margin. In second place was 2016 AL Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer with a 2.63 mark. In third place was Steven Matz.
Las Vegas is a relatively new home for the Mets, as it’s been their Triple-A affiliate for just four seasons. In that span, 35 pitchers have reached our innings cutoff. Montero has the best FIP here, too, with a 3.24 mark in 2013. Matz is in second place here. Montero also ranks fifth on the list with his 3.66 mark in 2014.
Montero pitched better in Double-A than all seven of the pitchers we anticipate getting starts for the Mets in 2017. He pitched better in Triple-A than the six guys who pitched in Las Vegas, as well as besting what Harvey did in Buffalo. It’s probably not a big surprise that the guy who had the best results in the minors did not have the best results in the majors. It has to be at least a little surprising that a guy who excelled at both Double-A and Triple-A seems a million miles away from being able to contribute at the major league level.
Montero made his MLB debut in 2014 and got hit hard. The main culprit was the gopher ball, as he allowed 5 HR in 20 IP in four May starts. He also allowed 11 BB in that span. Both totals were out of line with what Montero had done in the minors. He came back to the majors in August and split time starting and relieving. He got hit hard in his first start back. But in his final 19.1 IP, Montero did not allow a homer and he struck out 21 batters. He still had issues with walks but anyone who was watching could see vast improvement from his debut in May.
Montero had a good Spring in 2015 but the Mets ended up picking Dillon Gee to be the club’s fifth starter. It was a decision that didn’t work out for the Mets or either pitcher. Gee appeared in just eight games, was lit up like a Christmas tree and sent to the minors. He didn’t much care for that treatment, made his displeasure known and never pitched for the Mets again. Montero started the year in the bullpen, was sent to the minors, came back and made one start (allowed 1 BB and 0 HR in 5.2 IP) but was again demoted. Then he hurt his shoulder and hasn’t been a quality pitcher since.
The pie-in-the-sky alternate version of history has Montero as the club’s fifth starter in 2015 and he avoids the shoulder injury by not bouncing back and forth between starting and relieving and goes on to a successful MLB career. The reality is the club chose Gee, Montero never took to relieving and on top of it he got injured. And now it appears that if he’s ever going to be a quality pitcher, it will have to be in a different organization.
The Mets have had a tremendous track record here recently of turning pitchers into finished major league products. The hits have been many and the misses essentially boil down to Montero and Collin McHugh. They’ve shown much more patience with Montero than they did with McHugh, who they traded after just 11 appearances and four starts.
McHugh has recovered to have a strong MLB career but it took landing with the right organization, one which recognized his strengths, for him to blossom. He didn’t hit his stride with the Mets, nor the club they traded him to, the Rockies. It wasn’t until he landed with the Astros that McHugh took a giant leap forward. In Houston, McHugh turned to his slider and the results were dramatic. He went from throwing the pitch 13.1 percent of the time with the Mets in 2012 to 31.5 percent of the time with the Astros in 2014 when he won 11 games and finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year balloting.
Could Montero blossom with another organization? It’s hard to predict any pitcher who’s had limited success turning around and winning 19 games like McHugh did in 2015. But whatever scant chance there is of it happening, it’s roughly a million times more likely somewhere else than it is in Queens.
We’ve seen countless pitchers throughout the years flame out as starters, move to the bullpen and find success. Having only to pitch an inning or two at a time, the new reliever can simplify his offerings and quit trying to pace himself. The end result is scrapping unsuccessful pitches and focusing on one or two offerings, typically with an increased fastball velocity, too.
But the issue is that we haven’t seen any increase in velocity with Montero as a reliever. And he’s a guy who needs to throw pitches better, not shrink his offerings.
Montero needs to hear new voices and get with an organization that will allow him to pitch to all areas, not just trying to hit paint low and away with every pitch. It would be nice if he could add the Warthen Slider to his repertoire. But if it hasn’t happened by now, there’s little reason to expect it will.
On the 2017 Mets, Montero is the eighth starter and ninth reliever. It’s not where anyone would have imagined he’d wind up when he was rocketing up the ladder in the minors. And it’s hard to imagine it improving any here, either. While he’s had success this Spring, we still see more walks than we’d prefer. Montero simply doesn’t have the margin of error to succeed by allowing so many free passes.
It’s a rare case where Montero supporters and detractors agree. The best thing for all concerned is for Montero to never throw another pitch for the Mets again in a regular season game. He’s not going to blossom here and rather than watch him get treated like 2015 Gee, let him try to catch lightning in a bottle somewhere else.