We’ve done a number of these comparisons before, but for those of you who are not familiar with the format, we have a page explaining how they work. Essentially, this is an in-depth breakdown of what we will think will become of new Mariners prospect Jesus Montero.
The tricky part of this will be factoring in Montero’s defense. We will begin by assuming he will get a chance to stay behind the plate, at least for the time being.
What we know: Montero is a right-handed hitting catcher with a plus hit tool, plus power, and average plate discipline at best. He has below-average to poor defensive skills and may not be able to remain behind the plate. He is currently listed at 6’3” 235 lbs. and could also outgrow the position.
The first comparison everyone makes when discussing Montero is Mike Piazza, and on the face of it, the comparison makes sense. Piazza was a dominant offensive player who’s hitting ability made his poor defense behind the plate acceptable. At best, that’s what people hope Montero can be.
That’s also why your typical comparisons suck.
For instance, while Piazza was not a good defensive catcher, it wasn’t until later in his career that people started to question whether or not he should move to another position in the field, or to the American League so he could DH. People are already saying it about Montero, and he’s only 21. Both are considered large men for the catcher position, but Montero weighs 35 more pounds than Piazza did in his prime. 35! He’s a whole 4-year-old bigger than Piazza! It doesn’t mean he’s not a good comp for Montero, but it just means we’ve made it too easily and without considering all the factors.
For example, there’s only been two players in baseball history to play catcher in at least half of their games in a season and play enough to qualify for the batting title, that also weighed 235 pounds or more. Those men? Joe Mauer, who is 6’5” and has enough athleticism to have been recruited out of high school by Florida State to play quarterback, and James Francis Hogan, who played primarily for the Boston Braves and the New York Giants in the twenties and thirties, but did have the awesome distinction of going by the name “Shanty.” Montero is clearly a football scholarship and a great nickname short of those two fellas.
So that’s not a great start for making a case for Mr. Montero to stay behind the plate full-time.
But I’m going by Baseball-Reference.com’s height and weight of 6’3” 235 lbs. for Montero which Baseball America also has. FanGraphs.com has him listed at 6’4” 225 lbs. As in most things in life, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, and I’m guessing for a guy that size, his weight fluctuates back and forth between the two.
So for our best-case scenario, we might as well assume that Montero stays in his best possible shape the majority of the time.
A search for players with the same playing time criteria as before, but dropping the weight requirement down to 225 lbs. and adding a height minimum of 6’3” gives us seven players in the history of the game. Mauer is on the list again, but unfortunately Shanty doesn’t make the cut this time – he was only 6’1”.
Below is the complete list:
The first thing that stands out on this list is that if you’ve going to be a big catcher, you’d better be able to hit. Lombardi and Mauer are the only two catchers to win multiple batting titles, and McCann is a six time all-star and five-time silver slugger. Wieters just made his first all-star team, and even Pierzynski has made two of them and is just a tick below league-average, which for a catcher makes him above average. Long story short, if you don’t give your team a bunch of offensive performance, you’re not sticking behind the plate.
The good news is, Montero can hit. A lot. The bad news is that none of these guys really make for very good comps for Montero.
Pierzynski, Mauer, and McCann are all left-handed and Wieters is a switch-hitter. Handedness is very important when making a good comp. Lombardi was a great hitter, but didn’t hit for much power. Montero doesn’t necessarily project to win a batting title, but he almost certainly will hit for power. McLean didn’t hit much at all, and Buck hasn’t had anywhere near the prolonged success that is projected for Montero. Back to the drawing board.
We need to lower the size requirements. Let’s face it, there just hasn’t been a player like Montero, at his size, to catch regularly, which may be an indicator that it may never happen, but remember, we’re still trying to formulate our best-case scenario. The Yankees let Montero keep catching all the way through Triple-A, so there is at least some possibility that he’s able to pull it off for his younger years.
If we change the requirements to 6'1" and 215 pounds, and lower the playing time requirements to 100 games and at least half at catcher, we get a much longer list. The catchers to do it in more than four seasons were Charles Johnson, John Buck (again), and Joe Oliver. In fact, the only player on the list with any sort of sustained success is Johnson, and he was a defensive wizard who had only one season that approaches what Montero is expected to do offensively.
What we're learning is that there simply haven't been any catchers with Montero's build that have either been able to sustain a long career behind the plate, or have been able to be strong offensive players while attempting to pull it off.
So let's forget the weight for a minute. It's not something we can just disregard altogether, but it's also not like saying "let's forget that he's slow and predict him to steal 40 bases a season.". Montero is a big boy, but every year in every sport we see players who are bigger and faster than their contemporaries who have the same athleticism as players years before that we're a fraction of their size. In our best- scenario, let's make this assumption for Montero, who by all reports is a pretty good athlete for his size.
So we will just stick with tall catchers, not necessarily heavy ones. But now we're going to add in some performance barriers. Of seasons for catchers who were at least 6'2" and met the same playing requirements as before, but batted at least .300 and hit at least 30 home runs in the expansion era, we found that we have 11 examples. Mike Piazza had eight of them.
Damn he was good.
The other three men each did it once - Javy Lopez, Charles Johnson, and Joe Torre.
So after all that, it looks like our best comp may be Piazza after all. Just because our initial instinct was right, doesn't mean this wasn't worth the effort.
But I'm not comfortable with a complete Piazza comp. After all, Piazza had a three-year stretch where he hit .336, .346, .362 and never struck out more than 93 times in any season is entire career. Piazza's 9 seasons of 30-plus home runs may be within reach for Montero, but he's not regarded as nearly the same type of contact hitter as Piazza.
And then there's the defense.
I don't know whether it's because it's a different era where offense is down and defense matters more, or if Montero is just that much worse defensively, but Piazza was able to stay behind the plate his whole career. I just don't see Montero being back there anywhere near that long. Almost no one has ever done it at his weight, and the few who have weren't able to sustain any long-term offensive success while they did it.
So after all that, what's our best case scenario for Montero? A post-steroid version of Mike Piazza for the first four to five years of his career, but spending almost as much time at DH as catcher before making the shift permanently. I'm much more comfortable with the Piazza comp when we add in he extra caveats.
But, in truth, even four to five years of catching 75 or so games a year for Montero may be optimistic. So let's look for a purely offensive comp for our high-end realistic comp, since his only predictable move is to DH.
Now that he’s on the Mariners and people expect him to be their next great DH, the obvious comparisons to Edgar Martinez will about this spring. Please disregard them. Martinez won two batting titles, hit over .330 four times, and most importantly, walked over 100 times in a season four straight years from 1995-98. Montero has never exhibited that type of plate discipline in the minors, never walking more than 46 times in a season. Martinez also only hit more than 30 homers one in his career, while Montero should be able to surpass that mark with regularity.
So in looking for his best offensive comparisons, I searched for right-handed hitters of any position that had the most seasons hitting over .300 with an on-base percentage of less than .375, more than 25 homers in a season and more than 35 doubles, all reasonable projections for Montero’s prime. Below are the players since 1961 who have had more than one such season.
It’s an interesting list for sure, and I think our number one response may be the best one.
Don’t discount what a good hitter Carlos Lee was in the prime of his career just because of the albatross of a contract that now weighs him down. Lee, like Montero, was a heavier guy (currently listed much heavier than Montero has ever been, but remember, he’s now 35) who probably should have been in the American League DHing for the past five years. In his prime, he was a hitter who hovered on either side of .300, didn’t walk a ton but also didn’t rack up ridiculous strikeout numbers. He hit for power, although never more than 37, and only over 30 homers five times. If Montero can find a way to play 150 games a season, whether behind the plate, DHing, at first base, or even in left field, he could realistically have a career reminiscent of Lee’s. And with 349 career home runs and over 1200 RBI’s, that would be far from a disappointment.
So what is a realistic floor for Montero? If Lee is his realistic ceiling, then what happens if he falls a little short of that? What if Montero’s slight propensity to chase pitches out of the strike zone gets exploited at the major league level as the league adjusts to him?
A search of players who played primarily corner positions and hit under .300, less than 30 homers, less than 75 walks, and were bigger guys (over 225 lbs.) returned the following results:
There’s Carlos Lee again, with this result bringing up some of his down years, specifically those later in his career. It does make me feel better about using him before though.
The other Lee on this list, Derrek, is a poor fit. The seasons that fit the criteria are his later seasons as he has battled injuries. The D-Lee of his prime drew won a batting title and posted an OBP over .400 times, while drawing over 85 walks in a season three times.
The next guy on the list, however, I love as a realistic low-end comp. Disregard the years Ty Wigginton spent playing second base when he shouldn’t have been. From an offensive profile, WIgginton’s best years have been exactly what could happen to Montero if his aggressiveness gets the best of him at the plate. From 2006-2010, Wigginton averaged .270/.327/.456 with 20 home runs and 26 doubles per season, but 36 walks to 90 strikeouts. That exactly what would happen to Montero if he swings too much.
Now what if it all falls apart? What if the Mariners try to have him catch too much, the rigors of catching wear him out and he never develops offensively they way he should? Sure it’s a stretch, but that’s why it’s our worst case scenario.
In a search for catchers who hit below .280, less than 25 homers had less than 50 walks and were over 225 lbs., our search returns a few interesting names, but we only need the first:
Miguel Olivo is a worst case scenario for Jesus Montero, and will probably only happen if the Mariners keep him behind the plate way too long and his offensive performance suffers because of it. Olivo is a bad defensive catcher who swings at everything and his average suffers because of it, but he continues to get at-bats because he has some power at a position devoid of it. Sound familiar?
The Mariners will almost certainly move Montero out from behind the plate long before anything this drastic occurs, but it is within the realm of possibility.
So after breaking it all down, it’s come to this. If it all works out for Montero, he could turn out to be a post-steroid version of Mike Piazza, who doesn’t catch for nearly as long. Assuming he becomes a DH, which is the most-likely scenario, he could be looking at a Carlos Lee-type career as a DH. If his offensive game doesn’t develop, he could end up as a Ty Wigginton-type offensive player. And if it all falls apart, we could be looking at the next Miguel Olivo.
For the Mariners, this should be good news. Three of the four names on here are all-stars, so Montero will almost certainly become a solid player. The fact that Lee met most of the criteria, good and bad, in our most realistic comps, is a good sign, as Lee was a heck of an offensive player for a long time.