Name: Miguel Montero
Age on Opening Day: 27
2011 Stats: 140 games, 553 PAs, .282/.351/.469, 18 HR, 86 RBI
2010 Stats: 85 games, 331 PAs, .266/.332/.438, 9 HR, 43 RBI
The history of Arizona Diamondbacks catchers can essentially be reduced down to three players: Damian Miller, Chris Snyder, and Miguel Montero. Yes, there have been other catchers to play a year or two, but none have been long term solutions at the position. And this short list hasn't been particularly impressive. It's hard to find a good catcher, especially on offense, but it's been yet another position that Arizona has traditionally had difficulty fielding.
bWAR while in Arizona:
Miller 6.7 in 4 ½ seasons
Snyder 4.3 in 7
Montero 7.3 in 5
3 to 5 bWAR in a season seem to be good enough to be considered a top catcher, but the Diamondbacks have only ever had a catcher once get above 3. In 2011 year Montero had 4.5, good enough to be in the Top 3 in bWAR for the season. When you only consider players that played 75% of their games at the position, Montero is Top 2, behind only Alex Avila.
It's safe to say Montero had an elite season in 2011. A large part of this was driven by his offensive numbers. His slash of .282/.351/.469 with 18 home runs was more than good enough to put him near the top of nearly category. He was top 5 in batting average, top 2 in OPS, top 6 in home runs, number one in RBIs, top in doubles, and he did all this striking out less than many other similarly offensive catchers.
If his offensive game has any flaw, it's his tendency to over-swing, especially early in the count. If we compare him to a similar player in Alex Avila, we can see some striking differences. Montero swung at the first pitch 40% of the time, while Avila only swung at the first pitch 26% of the time. Montero only got to a 3-0 count 5% of the time, while Avila saw a 3-0 8% of the time.
The seeing-eye hypothesis is that Montero over-swings too much because he's looking for a home run. It's a sizeable critique, and something that should be worked on if true. Yet when we look at the ultimate outcome, strikeout percentage (or strikeouts per plate-appearance), then we see a different story. Montero struck out only 17.5% to Avila's 23.8%. Montero also had a better contact ratio (77% to 74%), which means although he might be seeing worse counts on average than Avila, he's striking out less and making more contact. In other words, he's very good at adjusting to what happens in the count; if he doesn't run into a pitch for a home run, he's more than willing to change his swing enough to simply make contact.
That doesn't mean Montero doesn't need to continue working on getting better hitting counts. Imagine what his numbers could be with just even a little bit better first pitch selection. I want to be clear that he doesn't differ from other hitters in that his numbers suffer significantly the worse the count is for him. The difference between 1-0 and 0-1 is significant, and could be improved by simply better pitch selection.
It's not particularly shocking that Miggy is a good offensive catcher. When Montero was called up for good in 2007, one of the things we were told to look for was his bat. Chris Snyder was still the starting catcher, but wasn't particularly known for his offensive prowess.
The error, though not perfect, is probably best suited for the catching position. It's fairly easy to see when a catcher makes an error, as a bad throw to second is easier to determine than whether a shortstop should have reached a ball. Unfortunately for Montero, he's particularly error prone, though not consistently. In 2011 he made 11 errors, nearly half of his career total, yet the year before he only made 1 error (and a catching one at that). So what happened to cause 10 more errors (all throwing)?
The seeing-eye theory would be that he's not particularly good at holding runners or preventing the run game (though this is hard to pin solely on him, as the pitcher plays a large part), and that he's not an accurate thrower. The first part of this theory is difficult to prove, if not completely false. In both 2010 and 2011 Montero gave up 47 and 48 stolen bases (which is not very high, in comparison to the league), and actually increased the number of runners caught stealing in 2011.
If you compare him to Yadier Molina, considered by many traditional pundits to be one of the best defensive catchers currently playing, the numbers are not that dissimilar. Molina saw 15 less base stealers (successful or not) in 2010 and ‘11 than Montero, and their CS% aren't far off, either. Compare this now to Alex Avila, who has given up a whopping 128 stolen bases in the past two years. So the errors do not indicate a weakness of allowing runners, but instead might be a random symptom of Montero's actually decent ability to hold and throw out runners. Yes, he caused more throwing errors in 2011, but he also threw out more.
It seemed he improved as the season went on, and some might point to Henry Blanco as a positive influence. That perhaps might be true, but it doesn't change that Montero seemingly did not have a problem in the first place, and might have been a weird aberration in the first half of 2011. It will be interesting to see, going forward, if 2011 was merely an outlier, and whether he returns to a more normal, error-free type of player.
I didn't want to spend 4 paragraphs on the simple error, but given that it is a large part of his narrative it seemed necessary to perhaps debunk the idea that he is necessarily error prone. He was in 2011, certainly, but this might be just a blip. Instead, I'd like to point out a very good number that is a bit more complex.
Total Defense Runs Saves (DRS) is a system that attempts to account for every defensive opportunity of a player, and rate it between -1 and 1. Then all these plays are added together, and it is expressed in runs. So a DRS of 0 is average, and means a player neither saved nor caused runs to be scored by their defense. Miguel Montero in 2011 had a DRS of 6, one of only 5 catchers to have a positive number. The notable thing about this is that it measures not just errors (which seemingly only pop up for catchers when someone is stealing a base) but all aspects of the defensive side of the catching position.
He didn't just suddenly become a great defender because Blanco was hanging out in the clubhouse; in reality he's been an above average to elite defensive catcher. He posted a DRS of 6 in 2009, 2 in 2010, and 6 again in 2011. For the past three years he's been the second best defensive catcher in the game, ahead of even the lauded Yadier Molina, and trailing only Matt Wieters, who is far and away the best defensive catcher right now. Montero didn't suddenly morph into a greater catcher this year; if anything he had an unusually slow start and rose back up to the level of greatness he had already established in 2009.
Unfortunately, many of the more advanced numbers for catchers are not yet fully available. I took a peek at the Bill James Handbook 2012, and he and his cohorts ranked Montero as 6th best catcher on the aggregate. Some of the experts had him higher by their system, others a little lower, but these various systems still think he's one of the best defenders, if not quite at a Matt Wieters or Yadier Molina level.
Miguel Montero had a great offensive and defensive season in 2011, one in which he was rewarded with his first All-Star appearance. If he continues to put up these numbers then he should be an All-Star for many years to come. If he somehow improves on his few flaws, he will certainly be the best catcher in all of baseball, or at least in the conversation. There is only one or two catcher better offensively than Montero. There are only two or three catchers better defensively. And there is no comparable catcher right now to Miggy. Maybe if Joe Mauer was healthy he'd have better competition for most complete catcher, but right now he might be the best all-around catcher in baseball. After average or less-than-average play behind the plate for over a decade in Arizona, it's nice to have a truly elite catcher.
Part of me feels this grade is a bit of a cheat, since one suspects part of the improvement - particularly defensively - should be credited to Henry Blanco. I doubt it's any coincidence that second-half Miggy showed off a laser, while first-half Miggy had more of a shotgun blunderbuss anti-personnel mine for an arm. But there's no doubt Montero really blossomed this year - it was also good just to have a catcher who appeared in 140 games, a dozen more than any Arizona player at the position had before. Health willing - and it's a brutal position - I look forward to seeing Montero there, not just in 2012, but for some years beyond that.