Rafael Montero’s quest to relaunch his once promising career

Rafael MonteroOne 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.

17 comments for “Rafael Montero’s quest to relaunch his once promising career

  1. March 19, 2017 at 11:06 am

    I remember when he was called a “control” pitcher when he was first called up. While he has been susceptible to the home run, his lack has of control seems to be his biggest undoing in the starts I’ve watched him make.

    • March 19, 2017 at 11:23 am

      I think this is one area where it would be helpful to see video from 2013. Did Montero have the ability to throw strikes to all four quadrants of the strike zone back then when he was so good?

      One theory of mine is that by limiting him exclusively to low and away, they’ve eliminated all margin for error. He doesn’t want to miss in the middle of the zone because he’ll get tattooed with a pitch over the heart of the plate. So he misses far away from the strike zone with pitches no one will swing at. I think it’s much more likely a batter will swing at a pitch that’s shoulder high than one that’s ankle high.

    • March 20, 2017 at 10:23 pm

      I recall him being billed as a great control pitcher with a good fastball. Neither has appeared at the ML level.

      Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sandy is just building up his trade value from a used ball to a new ball.

  2. Popeye
    March 19, 2017 at 11:45 am

    Package him and Flores. They might bring back a decent setup guy.

  3. Metsense
    March 19, 2017 at 12:02 pm

    I just don’t see him breaking camp, especially if Wheeler does. Keep him stretched out in AAA and if the Mets need an 8th starter then he is available. The article sums up Montero perfectly and although it is a ” quest” for Montero it seems to be more his “plight”. When opportunity knocked he needed to be ready to answer the door.

  4. TexasGusCC
    March 19, 2017 at 12:15 pm

    The Montero/Gee situation is an interesting comparison to Conforto/Bruc, where Alderson insists on getting top dollar for a player that isn’t worth it. I’m hoping somehow Conforto stays on the team because this ass kissing of veterans I believe has hurt this team much more than it has helped over the years.

    I can understand supporting a veteran when there doesn’t seem to be comparable younger player, but the Mets go out of their way to bury youngsters unless they are catchers, since they don’t seem to have a choice.

    • March 19, 2017 at 2:12 pm

      This is an area where we have incomplete information.

      We know the Mets had a chance to deal Gee to the Twins for Eduardo Escobar, one they certainly should have pulled the trigger on. But do we know what deals the Mets turned down for Bruce? I think I recall that the Orioles turned down Bruce for Brad Brach. What did Alderson turn down for Bruce?

      • TexasGusCC
        March 19, 2017 at 2:47 pm

        From the fourth paragraph of the following link to MLBTR on January 24th:

        “Any market for Bruce, though, was slowed by a free-agent market that was rife with defensively limited sluggers that could be had at lower rates. Brandon Moss, for example, remains available to this day, while Michael Saunders signed a one-year, $9MM deal with the Phillies that is more affordable than Bruce’s deal. (The Phillies were said to have some interest in a Bruce trade prior to that signing.) The Mets reportedly never warmed to the idea of absorbing some of Bruce’s salary to facilitate a trade, and they also were reported to be seeking two prospects in exchange for Bruce at last check.”

        https://www.mlbtraderumors.com/2017/01/mets-intend-to-open-season-with-jay-bruce-on-roster.html

        It’s not hard to understand why no GM would do that. Had Alderson’s ego not been quenched by Anthopoulos of the Blue Jays and Huntington of the Pirates, he wouldn’t have made any deals except for the ones he lost on, which were a few.

        It’s why I always say that Theo Epstein did a better job because he doesn’t mind using all his resources to get better – including money to smaller market teams – and understands talent trumps all. Thusly, he has made deals with many different organizations and sometimes hits a homerun, but is happy with a base hit up the middle.

        Again, Alderson’s fascination with the homeruns even in deal making is a problem. I think no one is asking the tough question talent-wise: Where would the Mets be six years after Alderson took over if it wasn’t for the players Minaya had in the minors and the Blue Jays trade for a pitcher Minaya had signed? Seven years into his rebuild and the cupboard is pretty bare of Alderson’s personally signed young talent on this team.

        Alderson aced the economics, but flunked the talent part of his performance.

  5. Chris F
    March 19, 2017 at 3:06 pm

    Well one thing that has my been developed is the stuff between the ears. When given the chance to shine in the Show he blew up. I think he was simply not of the skills and mindset to be successful in the bigs. He seems fragile. Is there direct evidence that from the dugout he was limited to low/away? I dont believe that. He developed a mystery injury. Montero had a chance to shine, he didn’t. I dont see it any more complicated than that. I would have dumped him 2 years ago, so the Mets seem to remain committed to him for some reason I can’t envision.

    Gus. Really. Conforto and Montero could not be more different and conflating that with Bruce is just wildly off base imo. Conforto earned his demotion, but make no mistake, everyone from Alderson down sees him as a Mets mainstay for many years to come. Also, Bruce has a lot power as a veteran, and cannot be just made a 5th outfielder. I would add that the whole starting pitching staff is young and the Mets dumped the most reliable pitcher they had to go with gsellman and lugo. Alderson picked up the option and couldn’t trade Bruce. We should also take into account that he has a 5month old child and did not have the capacity to move his family from Cincinnati. He also loved multiple times in ny and spent a lot of time in hotels. Bruce is a proven 30/100 guy pretty consistently if I recall. That’s good value. Conforto will be up this year we know that.

    • March 19, 2017 at 3:39 pm

      In the infamous bullpen outing he threw – what was it, 10? 11? 12? – consecutive pitches to the exact same low and away location. And then got crucified for it, like he was the one calling the pitches.

      I’d like to see him consistently shake off pitches. I’d like to see him brush guys back leaning out over the plate. Unfortunately, I don’t believe we’ll see either of those things.

      Your insistence on dismissing the seriousness of his injured shoulder is baffling. Before the shoulder injury, we’d see 95 and 96. I’m watching him right now and he’s topping out at 92.

      Holy smokes – former NBA player Steve Mix is an usher at St. Lucie! That’s better than Wal-Mart greeter, right?

      Edit: In his second inning, he registered 94.

    • TexasGusCC
      March 19, 2017 at 9:14 pm

      Chris, I’m comparing a previous time that this team had a chance to implement a young player as opposed to a veteran that lacked similar upside and went with the veteran. Just like now.

      If you think Bruce is a 30/100 guy, you should take a look at his stats because he hasn’t done either in many years. Further, the Mets acquired him with 80 RBI and he barely made it to 100.

      • Jimmy P
        March 20, 2017 at 10:27 am

        I also think part of the adjustment that modern baseball analysts have made is that there’s simply less value placed on the 30/100 mark if it is accompanied by other clear flaws.

        See Carter with the Yankees. Nobody wanted a guy who hit 42 HRs.

        Bruce can’t field, can’t run, can’t get on base (and can’t score when he does). So, okay, 30/100 in a very good year. At $13 million, the clear, overwhelming MLB consensus is that it’s too much buck for the bang.

  6. Eraff
    March 20, 2017 at 8:55 am

    He Lays on the 1st base side of the rubber, and pitches straight to the 1st base side of the plate….. he has a flat top to bottom Geometry…. straight in and flat…easy for MLB

    Easy idea is to move him to Third base side…develop a Change Up for Lefties…see if something New Works…. I’m probably wrong…but, what he’s doing does not work.

    His Spring “results” are purely circumstantial—he doesn’t get enough important batters out, and they consistently barrel every 93mph fastball.

    • March 20, 2017 at 10:09 am

      You’re absolutely right that he needs to try something new. However, he already throws a changeup and has pretty good results with it.

      • Jimmy P
        March 20, 2017 at 10:32 am

        The changeup is very good and it is his most promising pitch. It’s how he strikes guys out. I wish the slider had a bit more bite.

        Chris F mentioned wanting to give up on him two years ago. But I have to say, I personally would have a hard time doing that even now. It’s not a value play.

        And when you factor the potential upside, compared to what’s gained by dumping him, the math doesn’t really work for me. It’s very possible he records some big outs for the Mets this season, maybe into the playoffs.

  7. Chris F
    March 28, 2017 at 9:07 pm

    it appears whatever skeletons he has in his pocket have worked magic yet again.

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